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Ma'at - Chapter 3: Knossos

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4 years 6 months ago #11046 by itinerant
itinerant created the topic: Ma'at - Chapter 3: Knossos
Ma‘at

Chapter 3
By Itinerant
Edited by Amelia R.

All rights reserved, except for those ceded to the Whateley Academy Author’s Group.

"This is fan fiction for the Whateley Academy series. It may or may not match the timeline, characters, and continuity, but since it's fan fiction, who cares? To see the canon Whateley Stories, check out either Sapphire's Place ( www.sapphireplace.com/stories/whateley.html ) or the Big Closet ( bigclosetr.us/topshelf/taxonomy/term/117 )."


**********

From Chapter 2:

The candle-lit room vanished, and Dani felt an instant of disorientation. Suddenly, she was outdoors again, with the warm sun on her back. She was on a ridge, facing down a long slope that ended in what appeared to be a large bay, flanked on her left by mountains; much closer to her, perhaps half a mile away down the slope, was a small city.

*****

The humidity from the sea was strange, after the months in Egypt. The smell of sea-salt wafted up the slope as the sun's heat powered the sea breeze. There was an unexpected tug at her waist, and she looked to find a purse tied there that contained a number of gold, silver, and copper nuggets.

Dani stood still for a few minutes as she surveyed the landscape. The last time she'd 'traveled', she had just started moving. Her lack of caution had ended with her as a slave, and the memories of her capture left her shaking. She'd not make that mistake a second time. ~Fool me once, and all that. Ma'at?~

~Yes, dear one?~

~I don't want to get into the same fix as last time. I can see by the architecture that I'm somewhere in the Mediterranean, and the style could be almost any point in a three thousand year range. Will you tell me what's going on this time, before I get beaten up and enslaved?~ There was a distinctly bitter edge to the young woman's thought.

The goddess' voice was both patient and sympathetic. ~You're angry about what happened to you after you first appeared in Egypt. I understand, Meri-Ma'at, but what happened was utterly necessary, and I was truly watching over you, even then.~

~Why? Goddess, they nearly *raped* me!~ She dropped to the ground, wrapping her arms around her knees. ~They slapped me, and ... and fondled me.~ Dani shuddered as tears trailed slowly down her face. ~I still feel contaminated. How could that be necessary?~

~Oh, daughter,~ she felt strong arms around her, holding her close, ~if there had been a way to accomplish the task that would have spared you any or all of that abuse, I would have done it that way. Snefru had to be exposed and stopped, and I needed you in the throne room when he tried to take over. Do you know of any other way for you to accomplish all that?

~If you had just walked up to the city, you'd never have gotten into the palace. Snefru would have succeeded. If I had revealed you as my avatar earlier and gotten you into the palace, Snefru would have waited until you were away, or just had his bowmen kill everyone at the beginning.~

Dani was quiet; she knew she was getting 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth' -- the horror she felt from the memories was hardly assuaged, despite the reassurance. It hadn't been so bad while she had been in the comfort and security of the palace or the temple; she felt the memories of the last time overwhelm her, now that she was beginning a new stage of her travels.

A warm, loving thought cut through the fears. ~Dear child, you don't need to fear. I will be right here with you for the rest of your life. I don't promise perfect safety, but I do promise to walk along each step of your way, no matter what happens.~

Dani gathered her hair and pulled it back from her face, and then wiped her eyes. ~Okay. I can live with that, just don't be surprised if I have nightmares for a while.~

~And I'll be with you as you go through them.~ The statement was punctuated by another gentle hug.

It was a few minutes before the next question came. ~So, where am I now? Why have you brought me here?~

*****

She was standing again, and in a bit of a daze. Ma'at hadn't outlined everything that she was expected to accomplish, but she knew a little more, now.

She was close to the same era as when she'd left Memphis, 2600 B.C.E., but she was now on the north side of the island of Crete. ~Knossos, one of the three major centers of the Minoan civilization. They were far ahead of their time in so many ways.~ She thought for a moment, recalling the records and speculations about this mysterious culture. ~They were an awful lot like a Bronze Age British Empire in their focus on trade, or so everyone thinks. Now I have a chance to see it at the beginning.~

Dani didn't skip, but there was a definite spring in her step as she made her way down the slope.

~Head for the waterfront, dear. There's someone you need to meet there. You don't know the local language, and he does.~

A statue would show as much life as Dani at that moment. ~He? A man whom I've never MET?!~

~Peace, Dani! He's much like Semerkhet, and is a fine, honorable man. You are here, at a tipping point for this society, to ensure they take the proper path.~

*****

Khaba watched carefully as the sailors hauled another amphora out of the beached hull. ~The dates should fetch a good price at market; I was lucky to meet that merchant who was desperate to sell his wares. With any luck, the voyage should turn a tidy profit.~ His smile was brief; profitable voyages were less frequent of late. He'd done well, but some of the other captains in his trading group were having more difficulty. They could have more ships out, but someone had to stay home to manage the sale of cargo and purchase the cargos for the next voyage.

~I don't even want to think of what the taxes will do to us next season, if we don't fix the problem.~

The next jug was just appearing at the gunwale of the vessel, when he saw what had to be a goddess walking. ~Ptah, one of your daughters is abroad in the world!~ He kept only half his attention on the unloading, as the woman scanned the area. She finally seemed to spot him and began to walk in his direction. He hadn't missed the slight shudder before she moved, however.

~I suppose the appearance of a mere mortal would be distasteful to a goddess. I wonder why she's here?~ He gulped. ~And why she seems to be looking for me?~

*****

The walk had been pleasant, as the cool sea breeze countered the heat of the early afternoon sunshine. Her clothing seemed to be loose enough to let a little of the air circulate, while making sure she was covered. As she walked, she shook her head a little in wonder at the changes that had occurred. She had lived the first ninety-seven years of life as a man, five millennia in the future, and now found herself a young woman -- the avatar of the goddess Ma'at. The change was emphasized as she stepped down and felt that now-familiar bounce of flesh on her chest. Her breasts weren't large, but now and again they reminded her of their presence. Her necklace was low around her neck, and the feather pendant rested, safely hidden, between her breasts.

Dani finally made it to the beach, where a number of ships -- hardly larger than some modern-day cabin cruisers -- lay pulled up on the sand. Their masts were bare at the moment, and most were attended by small parties that were performing small repairs on their vessels. She moved quickly down the line, as a curve of a small stream carried odors that reminded her of the lack of sanitation and sewers.

~When I get home, I'm going to spend a week just soaking in a bathtub!~

She was nearing the end of the line of trading vessels, where what had to be a new arrival was being unloaded. She couldn't see into the hull, but large containers -- fired clay, she suspected -- were hauled up onto the edge of ship, where more sailors stood on the sand to take each container and carry it to its place by an array of similar cargo well up the beach.

One man, taller than most of the rest, was standing where he could watch the process.

~That's the man you should talk to, child,~ came Ma'at's voice.

He looked nothing like Semerkhet, and nothing like Snefru even before his attitude adjustment, but appearances could be deceiving. Ma'at vouched for him, though, so he had to be reasonably okay. He looked in her direction, and his eyes widened. Dani looked at him, and shuddered a little as she stepped out.

~I wonder what his reaction is all about?~ Dani wondered.

~His name is Khaba, and the gist of his thought is 'goddess walking.' You must remember that physically, you are as close to perfection as these people have ever seen.~

~Oh? How can that be?~

The goddess' mental voice bubbled with humor. ~Why daughter, you're my twin! Remember your dream? How could you be anything but divine?~

Dani giggled and shot back. ~I don't look anything like Bette Midler.~ Her thoughts skittered around for a bit before tripping over an odd bit of musical trivia. ~I suppose I'm working for *a* Divine Ms M, though.~

The young looking woman shifted into scholar mode, slowing her pace, as she considered the ramifications of that comment. Her appearance might help, if the overall attitude toward women wasn't too bad. On the other hand, she might find herself slamming up against social customs that would make it difficult to accomplish her mission here.

~I suppose it doesn't matter at the moment. It's time to get to meet my contact.~ She looked over the man appraisingly. ~He's a very fine looking specimen himself, I must say.~

It took a few seconds for the implications of that thought to sink in, but she was with Khaba now, and there wasn't time to freeze.

"Greetings, Khaba."

The look on the man's face was priceless.

*****

Dani had spent the remainder of the day largely observing the unloading of the cargo, and then she and Khaba had followed the small caravan of pack animals as the goods were carried into the city. She'd spent what time she could in conversation with her companion and learned something of his background.

Khaba had been born in the upper reaches of the Nile Delta region, the youngest child of a farmer. He'd spent his early life in the dull, repetitive, back-breaking efforts to plant, harvest, and replant the fields that fed his family. He'd seen, at times, what happened when injury or illness struck as whole families slowly perished. The loss of a neighbor to starvation -- a friend from his earliest days -- sparked a fury in him. He was determined that his family, whenever he finally had one, would never perish in that slow, painful way.

He'd mentioned it, once, to his father. That mistake had not been repeated, as the beating had been severe. He actually understood it, as the survival of the family depended on everyone working hard -- there was no margin for dreamers. The appearance of the trading ships as they appeared and departed from the port cities finally led him to his escape. He'd packed long before, and slipped away at night when he'd seen a ship head upstream. His family's farm was close enough to the city of Abydos, which was about a day's walk upstream, that it was not uncommon to see trading vessels. This time he'd take advantage of the opportunity to win a place on the crew while they were stopped, even if it meant hauling heavy cargo around to do so.

As dawn broke the next morning, Khaba walked up to the vessel as it sat waiting to be unloaded at the city, and asked where the ship's master was. By noon he was working at hauling cargo from the hold, and wondered briefly about the wisdom of his decision. His strength and hard work won grudging respect from the crew; he found himself selected to take an empty berth on the vessel as it was shoved off the beach and swung slowly toward the great sea.

He'd worked even harder as he'd hired on as a hand, but the clean smell of the salt air had bound him in a way that the odor of freshly tilled soil and growing plants never had. Now, after twenty years of working and saving, he found himself a partner in a trading business with several men of Knossos.

The business had seen their profits slowly decline of late; they were on the verge of losing money, and no-one seemed to know why their good cargos weren't bringing as much money as before. The prices for the outbound goods they bought here at home hadn't changed significantly, yet the number of jars of olive oil had diminished, the number of bales of wool grew smaller, and even the allocation of salt from the royal monopoly was less. All of that because of a slow bleeding away of the goods that they'd imported or exported.

The partnership was dying by inches.

Dani listened as he spoke. ~I suppose my first job is to try to learn enough about this time and place to do the job I was sent to do, even if it's just helping this man with his business.~ She sighed, and tried to recall the lessons she'd learned about accounting practices. The responsibility for tracking the outlays for an expedition was going to prove useful.

Dani followed along, and found herself explaining something of her own background; the extra information about being Ma'at's avatar had been withheld for the moment. Khaba didn't need to know, yet.

*****

The last of the donkeys was being unloaded, and the sun was dropping toward the mountains to the west, as the issue of housing crossed her mind. She was lost in thought on the topic for a moment, and was startled when her companion asked what she was thinking about.

"I'm sorry. I was just considering where I was going to stay while I'm here."

The man looked at her for a moment. She was tall and well-muscled for a woman, but her amazing beauty would attract the attention of slavers and other undesirables. None of the inns, he thought, would be appropriate, nor could he provide lodging himself. He'd put every extra penny into his business, and still had a small, one-room house.

"There are few safe places for a woman, I'm afraid," he began. "There are few who travel alone as you have. There is a widow who has a home near mine who has room, I believe. Her husband was one of my shipmates, and it would help her to have a lodger."

~That must be what the pouch is for,~ she decided.

"That would work well, and I can do someone else a good turn."

As he led her toward the widow's home, she made arrangements to meet with Khaba in the morning; it was time to start learning enough about this time and place to understand the objective of her mission.

*****

Malia looked again around the small house and sighed. It had been months, yet her heart still ached with the loss of her husband. They had both known the risks of the sea, and she'd known of his love for the broad waters when they'd met. She'd even learned a little of his native language over the years, though not quite enough to be fluent.

Still, she was left with the problem of providing for herself, now that his income was missing. Her parents had been odd, and they'd had their daughters taught to read and write along with their sons. The town of Knossos had no real place for such an outlandish concept, though they were tolerant of her occasional forays into the domains normally reserved for men. During those times when the trading fleet was away, Malia was one they turned to.

There were hungry weeks, though, during the winter. The fleet was in port, and there was little to do; the small amount she managed to set aside for those lean times was scarcely enough. Khaba helped as he could, but had only so much to share. She wasn't as old as she felt, but had seen thirty summers and felt every one of them twice over at times like this.

Despite the difficulties, she kept herself and her home neat. The last of her meager meal was finished, and she carefully cleaned and stored the utensils. There wasn't any extra money to replace even a broken dish.

The thud of a fist on the wooden door startled and frightened her. The sound of the familiar voice of her husband's captain was a joy and puzzle.

~He just returned, and it's too soon to have sold his cargo.~ He frequently left her with some of his spare funds to compensate her for watching over his home, but she'd no idea why he was stopping now.

The man's tall, lean form filled the doorway, and Malia was pulled into an affectionate hug. She was the wife of a good friend, and his heart broke when he saw how she struggled. She was proud and self-reliant. She'd refused on several occasions to allow him to provide for her; he'd been forced to invent stories of long-ago cargo that her husband had been allocated that had finally sold.

It was a useful fiction that allowed her to hold on to her dignity.

The man spoke in the local tongue, and waved a hand behind him at someone. "Malia, I have a favor to ask of you. Would you be willing to rent space to a traveling scholar?"

Malia gaped as the woman, as tall as Khaba, stepped around to greet her potential landlady. Even in the fading daylight, her bright, clear eyes sparkled with intelligence. She was lovely, yet had an air of uncertainty about her. The woman's voice was sweet, and her face was open and friendly as she came in and spoke to Khaba, who translated for her.

"Malia, my name is Dani. I was sent here to help Khaba, and I need a place to stay. He says you have space and might be willing to rent."

Khaba translated, and grinned at Malia as her eyes glittered in suspicion.

The negotiations took enough time that it was dark before the man left. Dani had insisted on paying for new dishes and utensils, extra furniture to accommodate her needs, and food to restock the larder; all that was in addition to payments for the space itself. Malia had protested, only to encounter a will as stubborn as her own.

~Might as well argue with the mountains,~ the older woman fumed.

"Malia, I don't know your language, or this city, and I'll be relying on you for help. My time here will be easier if we're both comfortable and well fed. I'm paying for your time and knowledge as well as the lodging."

The man left after the negotiations were complete. Being the intermediary between the two stone-willed women was like being grain in a grinding bowl.

~At least I wasn't trying to argue with either of them.~

*****

Khaba extinguished the lamp in his room and considered the events of the day as his mind whirled. She was an extraordinary beauty, and yet an awesomely quick mind lurked behind the face. Calling her a scholar was like calling the sun a lamp; he‘d seen her pause several times in her reply to a question, as she struggled to frame an answer.

~As if she knew so much that she was pressed to make her answer simple enough.~

His pride rose up, and he fought the resentment that came from feeling he was being treated as an ignorant child. Yet she was quick to respond to the queries that followed, and his most searching questions seemed to still touch only the surface of her understanding. He wondered what sort of place her homeland was, that such a woman could exist, and why she wanted to accompany him to his warehouse tomorrow.

~I pray to the gods that I don't have to try to trade against her people.~

*****

The next morning, as the sun just began to break above the horizon, the two women were on their way to the city marketplace. The arguments of the previous evening had only a brief reprise; it was hard for Malia to hold her ground when her stomach ached at the prospect of another empty day. The little Malia knew of the Egyptian's language provided little scope for a long argument anyway.

They returned with more food than the older woman had seen at one time since she'd been widowed, and the craftsmen had been engaged to completely re-outfit the house. The only odd additions were a chair and broad table that Dani insisted on calling a 'desk.' The strange Egyptian had also sought out places where the scribes plied their trade, and insisted on acquiring the implements for herself. All through the morning the two worked hard at teaching Dani the local language, and the old archaeologist's gift of learning languages was on full display.

"I don't see why you spent so much," Malia grumbled, switching awkwardly between Egyptian and Cretan. "You could have gotten usable things for a tenth of what you spent!"

Dani gave her a gentle smile, and paused to frame her next thought in the new language. "Malia, I don't know how long I'll be here, and I don't see the point in scrimping on something I'll need for a while." The smile turned into a grin. "Don't worry, though. I suspect we'll both be working hard enough that you'll think you've earned it, too."

*****

Khaba arrived about mid-morning to escort the strange visitor to the warehouse, where the shipment was being sorted out and readied for delivery or sale.

His curiosity quickly overcame his hesitance. "Dani, you said you were sent here to help me. Help me do what, and why?"

The lovely face was shaded with uncertainty. "In all honesty, I don't know yet. My ... patroness said I needed to be here, and now, because it was important. I want to watch you as you go about your normal business today. I'm hoping it will help me understand my purpose for being in Knossos."

Her thoughts turned to the immediate past. ~I just hope I don't have to deal with a coup, or assassins.~

The place was organized chaos, as the contingent of laborers loaded the pack animals for the final stage of each item's trip. Wheat, oil, and all manner of raw material for a Bronze Age city were sent off as they were ready. The activity seemed to have started early enough that day that some of the beasts were returning, showing signs of weariness from the morning’s labor. Some of the returning animals were loaded with goods for the inevitable outbound voyages, but the number was lower than she would have expected.

Despite the unique setting, there was enough resemblance to modern day warehouses that she was able to sort out just what was happening. She listened carefully to her guide's description in any case, just to ensure she'd not misinterpreted what she saw.

At last, they came to a corner, where a table stood with a small group of four men around it.

The first greetings were in the same language that Malia used, and which remained largely unknown to her, and Dani listened carefully to the intonations. ~What did that seminar call it? Eteocretan? Did that language even exist this long ago?~

Khaba spoke briefly in the same tongue, and then switched to Egyptian again. "She says she is a scholar from far to the west, and is here to learn our ways and be what help she can." His partners were obviously skeptical, yet Khaba was decidedly the leader of the group. He also saw an opportunity to slake his own thirst for understanding about this odd woman.

"Perhaps she can outline what she's seen of our business, and give us an idea of how it differs from that in her own land?"

*****

She felt nervous at the beginning, but slowly warmed to her narrative. She filtered little as she described the operations of the modern shipping organizations she'd encountered as compared to what she'd seen that morning. She was lost in her topic as she concentrated on recalling more precise details, and only became aware of her audience again as she completed her description.

"Two last points I think I'd emphasize are the lack of anyone here to record the flow of goods, and the fact that you have no women anywhere in your operations. With the first, you can begin to anticipate changes in trade by looking for the rise and fall in sales of your goods, and using women for those tasks will free your men to make more trade journeys."

She hesitated for a moment. "If you have any records, I can give you an idea of what I mean."

She was hardly surprised to find that no written records existed, save for those stored in the admittedly keen minds of the men around her -- not all of whom were convinced.

The language changed back to the local dialect, but the tone of their voices made their meaning clear as did the gestures in her direction. She looked at her host's face for clues to his attitude; he was holding his patience, but was exasperated with his colleagues.

The yammering wore on her own patience. ~They're as bad as department heads at budget time!~ Finally, she was tired of the noise, and taking advantage of a mug in front of what appeared to be the chief yammerhead, she gathered a thread of her power and flicked the mug into the man's lap as he gesticulated and his hand came very close.

It effectively ended the interminable argument, but the man -- Nebre, by name -- was still scowling as he slowly air-dried. The other three partners, Dewen, Andjib, and Weneg appeared to be mostly unsympathetic to his plight.

~That was petty, child,~ Ma'at's voice chided.

~I cannot argue that point, but it stopped the arguing for argument's sake. Besides, I could have picked on Andjib; those pretty pointy-toed sandals of his would look the worse for having wine on them.~

Nebre was unhappy; Dewen and Weneg were intrigued. Andjib appeared to be indifferent to the whole idea of precise record keeping. Dani shrugged mentally.

"I think," Khaba broke in, "that we're missing the opportunity here. She is offering to try to help us, and it will cost us *nothing* to gain her advice on how we can regain our lost profits."

They finally managed to reach a consensus: she would be given access to the warehouse and the five men who owned the business. Any recommendations would be considered and approved by the group before putting them into practice.

*****

The time seemed to evaporate, as Dani focused intently on learning every aspect of the business and culture after the meeting. She began at the very simplest level. The common trading tongue within the group turned out to be Egyptian, though Dani pestered Malia and Khaba for lessons in the local language, too. The spoken language was unfamiliar to her, but the written was so close to the Egyptian that she picked it up quickly; the written language was Cretan hieroglyphics that predated the linear scripts by at least three hundred years. It wasn't 'Linear A', unfortunately. She'd hoped to spend some of her time learning that untranslatable language; it would have been a real coup to return with that knowledge.

After educating herself in the local language and numbering system, Dani started to inventory the goods in the storehouse. They were pulling themselves up by their bootstraps -- or sandal straps, as the case may be. The term was meaningless to the men of the partnership, but the idea of starting from nothing and building up was well understood by all.

It took no time at all to decide that, as a recording medium, clay was her last choice. It was the only option at the moment, so she was getting experience in managing the stiff material. It was a challenge to keep it moist enough for use, yet not so moist that the sharp-edged characters would be lost as the material slumped.

The scholar found herself relying greatly on Malia, with her sharp mind, experience, and web of contacts throughout the city. She was also displaying a shrewd grasp of Dani's intent, and added her own observations and knowledge.

Malia had, at first, been hesitant and watchful of the tall, strange, black-haired woman. The warm wit, plentiful food, and intelligent conversations as the oil lamps lit the room had drawn the two into a growing friendship. Apart, at least, from the tiffs over Dani's insistence on paying more than what Malia considered her fair share of the food costs.

Arguing about it was as effective as sweeping back the sea with a broom; Dani kept plentiful food in the house despite her landlady's grumblings.


*****

"What's the foreign witch up to now? We've gotten less than a tenth of what we'd agreed to sell off, and she and that sailor's widow are buzzing around like flies on a carcass."

"We can't get at the goods, yet! Worse, that Egyptian is a scribe; she's written down everything that was brought in before we could get your part set aside." He swore under his breath. "And on top of it all, they're sealing the damned jars! If we try to skim any off, it'll show."

"We'll have to get them both out of the way. I'll give you time, but our ... customers won't wait indefinitely."

Andjib shrugged. "I don't want to kill if it can be avoided. The rest of my partners will be nervous if women start dying mysteriously, and I can't touch them, not yet. I intend to work around their records, if possible; we're working on duplicating the seals they used, and should be ready before too long."

*****

The new system Dani was working on was slowly growing. The men were mostly indifferent to the peculiar behavior of the Egyptian woman, even as she added other worker's wives to her team. They slowly spread their influence over the warehouse, and Dani's record collection grew to the point she had to have Khaba arrange for additional space and shelving.

Malia wasn't sneaky, not quite. She just took advantage of the presence of certain wives to nudge the workers into keeping an eye on what was shipped out to customers. Dani increasingly delegated the record updates to the widow, and worked on improving her language skills as she taught the wives the reading, writing, and arithmetic they'd need to be effective in the role that lay before them.

Quiet, generally submissive -- superficially, anyway -- and the true rulers of their households, the women were accustomed to managing their homes. Having handled the day-to-day care of children, husbands, livestock, and slaves, they were bemused by the relative simplicity of the business.

"*This* is what they do all day? If they'd work their brains half as hard as they worked their muscles, they'd have some energy at the end of the day."

When the winter storms closed in, and the trading season was done, the profits from the year's voyages were even higher than they had been prior to the slump. Khaba wrangled a portion of the increase for Dani, who portioned out the bulk of the funds to the women who'd worked with her. Malia was pleasantly surprised at the amount, but no-one could argue that she'd not earned every bit of it. For at least the coming winter, she'd have enough to eat regularly.

Dani took her own allotment and purchased a small house near the warehouse, furnishing it with the tables and shelving to function as a business office. Khaba took a look around the place in bewilderment.

"What's the point of this, Dani?" the man asked. "Are you setting up shop for taking over the city?"

Her laugh chimed in the room as the accumulated records were moved into the storage area. "Not at all, my friend. I don't care for politics; I'm just here to help you however I can. All this," she waved at their surroundings, "is to try to make sure that next year is as profitable as this year was."

He looked quizzically at her, his expression plainly wanting an explanation.

She continued, "As far as I can tell, your slump must have been caused by theft. You said that the prices you paid for the cargo, and the prices here when you sold it, were about the same as last year. Since you had about the same amount of goods as last year, someone had to be taking part of your cargo and selling it themselves. Between the records and the seals on the containers, they couldn't have had a chance to take anything this season. I can't think of any other reason why you'd have such a big change in profits otherwise."

"I suppose there's no way to know who, or when, or how." Khaba had a faintly hopeful look.

She shrugged. "I can't even tell you whose cargo was skimmed off last time, since there aren't any records. As long as you keep recording what comes in, and seal and mark each container, you'll at least be able to tell what comes up short."

"How am I supposed to do that? All the men working the warehouse are seamen, and we don't have anyone to handle the new work!"

She couldn't help it; the giggles bubbled out despite her best efforts. She had a highly amused grin as she managed to reply. "You do it the same way *I* did it; the women that did the work this time were working mostly under Malia, and they can do it from now on whether I'm here or not. And best of all, you can spend your time making trade trips and leave the record keeping part of the business to the women. Just make sure everything that comes into the warehouse is recorded, and everything that leaves is also written down; with that information, all you'll need to do is check every so often to make sure nothing has gone missing."

*****

The warehouse was brightly lit by an array on lamps against the gloom of the evening, and a long line of tables were loaded with food and drink. The profits had been sufficient to allow an end of the year celebration, and after the gloom of the last couple of years the partners had agreed that the morale boost was needed.

Much of the food was from local sources: Several chickpea dishes, wheat bread, grapes, and figs were supplemented by several platters of mutton, beef, and pork. Dani was intrigued, but not shocked by how different from Egypt the cuisine was. Here, the climate and terrain allowed for extensive herds, and a different variety of staples; the Nile valley was lacking in space to dedicate to grazing, and the availability of irrigation had a large impact on the selection of grains. There were one or two rice dishes included in the feast as the import stocks were tapped for a little additional variety.

Dani had been seated with Malia just a little down the table from Khaba and his partners, and observed the merriment further down the line of celebrants, where families, and single men, took advantage of the cornucopia of food.

A bowl of cooked vegetables -- a blend similar to that which she'd had in Memphis -- was placed near Dani, and she eagerly took a sample. Her eyes snapped wide as the sweet onion flavor and unique blend of mint with other spices rendered the dish a flavor that would have had Iti and the other Egyptian nobles demanding more.

The locals who knew her were bewildered as Dani hunted down the woman who'd prepared the dish. They were far less confused when she returned and explained.

"I come from another land, but I have spent time in Egypt. There's a market there for your onions and other herbs if you can get them there without them spoiling. They have a vegetable dish much like this one," she pointed to the new arrival, "but their onions have very different flavor. You'll make a huge profit on the onions, mint, oregano, and garlic once you can get the people there to taste them."

The logistics of preserving and transporting the perishables, and how they might get the local nobility in the Egyptian cities to try the imports, drew in the partners and some of their senior seamen as the prospect of a wholly new and potentially highly-profitable market drew them from the revelry.

A small group of the men had some musical talent, and with an array of cithara and flutes took a break to serenade the gathering with the, to the archaeologist's ears, eerie sounds of a musical heritage that had died thousands of years before -- and Dani wept with the joy of the experience and the knowledge that only a faint echo would survive through the descendants of the revelers. Small groups began to dance to the tunes in an uncluttered area of the building.

Malia extended a gentle hand to her tenant. "Dani? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong; nothing at all." Dani wiped her eyes and sniffed. "I'm just so thrilled to hear your music, and to see your dances. I've studied the lands in this part of the world all my life, but I never thought I'd see and hear any of this."

"Would you like to sit in and learn some of the songs? I'm sure with your voice they'd be happy to have you."

The avatar's face paled. "Malia, trust me, you don't want me to sing."

*****

A heavy fist hammered on the outside door.

Dani was trying to wake up after the late night of celebrations, and heard only the vague sounds of clattering as, she assumed, Malia went to find out who was making all the noise. It took a couple of minutes before she made it out of her room to find Khaba and Malia speaking excitedly. Despite the last few months of total immersion in Eteocretan, she was hard pressed to follow the conversation. She almost regretted it when she finally figured out what was being said.

The next morning found Dani, Malia and Khaba standing beside the burned out shell of the new office. Smoke still rose and twisted like the ghosts of gray snakes from the smoldering beams.

The man gritted his teeth. "Someone must have left a lamp lit; now all the records are gone."

The scholar quirked an eyebrow and walked toward where the shelves had been. "Khaba, I don't think that's necessarily true. I was the last person out of here last night, and I know I put the lamp out before I left." She paused for a moment. "Remember, too, that the records were all dried clay. We might have brittle, hard-baked records, but ..."

She stopped as she looked at the scattered shards on the floor. She cursed in a half-dozen languages as she surveyed the scene, taking in the toppled, burned shelving. ~Something's wrong here. The shard pattern ...~

She stepped back into the roadway, and began to look carefully at the floor of the room. She moved slowly, and examined each part the floor. She worked her way in from the door, checking for any sign of the perpetrator. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of a footprint on the floor. A charred box quickly covered the evidence.

Dani's voice was grim. "It wasn't accidental. Someone smashed the tablets before the fire."

Khaba looked intently at the stern face of the strange woman. "How can you possibly tell?"

Dani pointed to the floor. "Take a look there, and think about what you see. All the tablets were on those shelves. If the shelves had collapsed from the burning, all of the fragments would have been on one side or the other. If you look, you can see fragments right up against the wall on *both* sides." She smiled, grimly. "Fortunately, whoever did it left us a little hint as to who they were."

At the man's questioning look, she lifted the box.

Khaba's voice quivered with rage. "We need to have a meeting here with my partners, it seems."

*****

The five partners stood in the burned out house and sniffed distastefully at the acrid odor. Khaba's face was a bronze mask as he pointed out the losses incurred, and then showed them how he knew it wasn't accidental. Dani and Malia had remained in the doorway, watching the interactions.

Nebre was red-faced with anger as the implication became clear. "You mean that someone deliberately destroyed the records, and then burned the place to try to hide it?"

"Exactly," Khaba replied. "Someone seems to be upset that we did so well this season."

Andjib scanned the place, shrugging as he turned back to the group. "It seems unfortunate that there's no way to tell who did this."

"I wouldn't say that," Dani interjected. "Sometimes you can find the most interesting items if you just know what to look for." She walked with Malia to the box and lifted it out of the way.

A very distinct print from a pointed-toe sandal was revealed, and all the heads turned to stare at a suddenly pale Andjib, who started backing slowly toward the empty doorway. He suddenly held a knife in his hand, and waved it threateningly.

"Stay away! I'll kill anyone who comes close!" He slipped slowly toward the door.

"Why, Andjib? How could you steal from us like this?" Dewen had been his friend for years, and the betrayal cut deep.

"Don't be stupid! I own parts of two other partnerships, and used the money from you fools to take a bigger share. In another year or two, I'd have controlled most of the trade to this city, if not for that meddling Egyptian."

Before anyone could react, he abruptly threw the knife at Dani.

She felt a somewhat familiar sensation in that eternal instant of time as the knife flew toward her heart. There was a flicker in her mind as Ma'at asserted her power, but only enough to allow her to twist out of the way. The knife slipped by her and buried itself in the burned doorjamb.

Khaba tackled Andjib first, and was quickly joined by Dewen. The three men were heavily dusted by ash, but the knife-wielder was finally subdued. He glared sullenly at Dani -- the instigator of all his problems.

Malia was staring at Dani as well, but with wonder rather than hate. "How did that knife miss? No-one can move that fast!"

Dani chewed her lip for a moment. Ma'at was the Goddess of Truth, and as much as the avatar wished it was otherwise, right now a lie was out of the question.

"I don't want to answer that right now, my friend." The scholar patted her landlady on the shoulder. "The truth would complicate things more than I care for at the moment."

The older woman's face reflected her dissatisfaction, but she had accepted the answer for the moment.

The partners had badgered their captive while the two women conversed, trying to extract reason from the insane situation. None of them were quite shouting, but they had been talking loudly and energetically. They quieted as the women walked up.

"Tell me, Khaba, what's the penalty for starting a fire in the city? And what is the punishment for theft?" Dani focused her attention steadily on Andjib as she spoke; his face went white with fear and rage.

The man's voice was heavy with anger as he replied. "The penalty is impaling for setting a house on fire; theft, depending on the circumstances, can be anything from loss of a hand to beheading."

The captive was given a choice: If he'd tell his partners everything he'd done, and who his partners in the crimes were, they'd give him a chance to flee the island before telling anyone else what had happened, otherwise he'd be turned over to the city guard for trial.

It was hardly a real choice, and Andjib had agreed without hesitation.

*****

The winter was one of the most memorable the city of Knossos had had in decades. The commercial interests had been shaken by the revelation of theft, and two major trading groups implicated in the crime had been dismantled.

Khaba and the remaining partners had circulated the evidence gathered after their intense questioning of their former colleague and, after it had been verified, had just happened to leave a door unsecured.

The city guard found only a vacant space where the former partner's boat had been, and he'd disappeared into the wide seas.

The following trading season was utterly unique for the partners. The office space had been rebuilt, and readied for the new year. Malia, working under Dani's watchful eye, had coordinated the land based operations, and the partners spent the newly available time on voyages to new places they'd not had time for. The shore-based people had even arranged for food and water to re-supply the vessels when they had returned and unloaded. The new storage had been readied for the onions that would be taken aboard the fastest of the trading ships to the possible new markets in Egypt. Dani had made suggestions as to where the nobility's kitchen staff shopped; a few strategic samples produced an onslaught of demand. The oregano and mint were harder to market, but a few enterprising cooks had stepped up to try the new herbs.

The local farmers were warned that the demand for their onion crop would be much larger next season as the ships, laden with rice, cotton, and dates, returned from their voyages.

The partnership's profits were the target of much grumbling over the following winter, and the city took note of the new organization's efficiency. The king and his advisors had sent underlings to examine the changes that had catapulted a mid-sized group of traders to levels of commerce that much larger groups had fallen short of.

By the end of the season, the records had indicated several new, highly profitable opportunities for the next season.

The first pebbles had started down the slope, in advance of the avalanche of change for the island's communities and culture.

*****

The next summer was going at least as well as the previous year, and Dani had found herself with time to stretch her language skills as she circulated around the city. She was still an archaeologist, and the opportunity to study the ancient culture -- given how little hard evidence had survived -- was irresistible.

Malia was puzzled by her tenant's fascination with the commonplace activities, and was hardly mollified by the unhelpful response to her questions about why all the time was spent on unproductive observation of the daily struggle to remove the night-soil from the city streets.

They were walking toward an open marketplace in the city, and Malia was reminded of earlier events as they passed a stall where knives were sold.

"Dani, you never did answer my question about how you avoided Andjib's knife."

The tall scholar turned with a sad smile, as she once again prepared to fend off an awkward question. The reply was forestalled by the approach of a small band of men.

"There she is! She's disrupted our city enough; it's time to get rid of her!"

Several groups, within the government and trade groups, had viciously fought against the changes Dani had instigated. The economic pressures had forced the situation, and even if things could never be the same, they would vent their frustrations and anger on the source.

The women, surrounded by blank walls of stone-walled houses, were forced into a blind alley and trapped by the dozen men who'd herded them there and wielded knives and clubs.

Dani gathered her concentration and placed herself between Malia and the thugs. "Stay behind me, Malia."

"Why? How can you do anything against...."

She gaped as she received an answer to her unfinished question, and the unanswered question from the earlier incident.

Dani felt the now-familiar sensation of her Goddess as she asserted her power. The sun muted the effect, but everyone in the alley saw a bright, golden glow rise around the Egyptian woman.

The men found themselves held, like flies trapped in amber, as the shimmering figure stretched out a hand and stripped them of their weaponry.

Dani's voice took on an odd timbre as Ma'at spoke. "You will not harm my chosen, nor will you be allowed to disrupt what I have decreed will happen. Leave now, and if you try to harm anyone under my protection, you will lose more than just your weapons!"

The men scrambled away as they were released, too frightened to even scream.

Ma'at turned, and looked on Malia's kneeling figure; she also heard Dani's mental cry of dismay.

"Malia, child, you need not fear. I am Ma'at, and Dani is my chosen avatar. I brought her here to help you and your friends. She will be weary and will sleep shortly as she recovers; watch over her until she wakes."

From the back of her own mind, Dani felt a chasm opening; the people who'd become her friends would not -- could not -- see her as a mere traveling scholar. She was branded now, and would be set apart for the rest of her stay.

Ma'at's mental voice was warm with comfort, even as it warned. ~Meri-Ma'at, I promise you will not always be alone. Keep in mind that when you love, you also open yourself to pain, and there will be more than enough of that in your life as well.~

The quiet sadness in her heart echoed through Dani's reply. ~Ma'at, I've lived one life without love and insulated in my cocoon of academics. I won't make that mistake again. It just hurts to have people I consider friends treat me this way.~

Her thoughts were cut off by overwhelming fatigue as Ma'at withdrew; Dani's last waking sight was the fearful, awestruck eyes of her landlady.

*****

Dani struggled back to awareness, but had yet to open her eyes. She was still tired, but as before the rest allowed her to at least function again. A gentle hand stroked her forehead.

"Are you well, Lady?" The capital letter was clear in the familiar voice. "How may I serve the Chosen of the Goddess?"

Dani blinked her eyes and found herself back in her rented room. Malia sat beside her bed on a stool. The scholar carefully sat up on the edge of the bed.

"I'm fine, Malia." Her voice took on a pleading tone. "I'm still your friend, and still Dani to you -- at least I hope so." The look of awe and reverence chilled her hopes; the woman dropping to her knees crushed them entirely.

Dani knelt down and took the other woman's hands in one of her own. "Malia?" she said, as she used her free hand to raise the widow's face to her own.

"Lady, I ... Forgive me, please for arguing with you when you first came. I had no idea." Her eyes were almost tearing in her fear. Her body shook as Dani released her hands and embraced her.

"Oh, Malia, don't worry and don't be afraid. I'm not angry, and neither is the Goddess. She's pleased with you, and your stubborn determination. You'd never have survived without your strength of will."

It was dark by the time the avatar managed to reassure her landlady enough to turn their attention to a long-ignored supper.

*****

Malia was still subdued when morning came, but was at least responding again to the gentle humor they'd both enjoyed before. The scene at the warehouse was less pleasant; a ripple of silence spread as she and her companion walked in and most of the workers bowed or knelt. The story had spread through the city that the gods had marked the odd woman as their own.

She managed to get close to Khaba before he realized she'd arrived, and her sharp "Don't you dare!" was the only thing that kept him from kneeling.

~My Lady, I don't think I can handle this. Everyone's treating me like I'll drop the roof on their heads if they don't bow. It wasn't this bad in Memphis.~

~As I recall, daughter, it was equally bad in the temple.~

~They didn't kneel!~

~Only because Nebka didn't, and the only reason she didn't was because I'd told her not to.~

Dani sighed. ~What's left to be done here, My Lady? I think I'm ready to go before it gets any worse.~

~Soon, dear one. We just need to make sure they understand where to go from here, and it will be time to go. I know it's hard for you, but what you've done here is truly important.~

*****

She was standing up on the mountainside again, about where she'd been so many months before. She had left before sunrise to make the walk up the ridge. She didn't want anyone around for fear that it would further aggravate the situation; she'd left messages for Khaba and Malia, and had wished them both a long and healthy life, and success in the business. She'd strongly suggested that they should continue to use the women's skill to manage the business, and let the men do the big-muscle work of the voyages, but also gently hinted that the two of them seemed to have a lot in common.

~Who knows? Perhaps they'll take the hint and build a family.~

~Would it surprise you if they did, Dani?~ came the warm thought from her goddess.

~It would be a joy, Lady. This has been hard for me, and it would help to know that they’d both found someone to share their lives with.~

~Are you ready, my dear daughter?~ The sensation of a reassuring hug accompanied the thought.

~Yes, ma'am. I'm getting anxious to go home.~

~There are a few more tasks for you, dear child, before that time comes, but you will return to your own time.~

The rising sun concealed the flicker of light as the woman vanished.

*****

The world snapped back into existence around her. She found herself on a long, low rise that swept down in grassy waves to a bay. The sun was to her left, and high in the sky as a vessel, its bare mast swaying with the gentle waves, was rowed in toward a beach.

There was a cluster of tents, or so it seemed, near the shore and well above the line where storms could drive the water. She looked around, and the grass seemed to extend to the hazy horizon in every direction.
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