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Sandi HallIN the days before money on Mediterranean Crete, girls and boys are training to master the dangerous skill of leaping the long-horned bull Zeiaphus for the Spring Games, but cannot manage to put their personal desires aside.

Leaper Ecrytus, handsome as Apollo, struggles with his lust for shy Timas while tall Atthis dreams of being chosen for the central role in the sacred Spiral Leap.

And Leaper Scamandronymus - Scam - is determined to discover the secrets of the Grove, where none are allowed to go.

Meanwhile, Trader Praxinoa, famous for sailing to the land of the monkeys, is drawn into the mystery of the black-skinned stranger, and the pale-eyed man with a knife under his arm. Before the Spring Games end, one Leaper will be dead, and Praxinoa seeking permission to cross the Libyan Sea.

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Chapter One

Year 2003 BCE         PHAESTOS

      
       
Now that the snake has shed its skin, thought Trader Praxinoa as she climbed the stairs to the roof, the ships from the north will soon dock again at Heraklion, and their thick-legged traders grunt their way up to Knossos with its blue pillars that made it float against the sky. So too would ships come to Phaestos, but from the south – from Cyrenaica or Egypt, docking in Phaestos’s own small port of Komos. Trade! A look of pleasure came over her narrow brown face with its straight black eyebrows and cheeks marked by long dimples when she smiled. How she loved Trade!

        She expected Trader Nafa’a’s Obiyaya to sail into port any day now, bringing dates and strange new spices, stacks of unbleached cotton higher than her head, and scores of other goods once more streaming into the central courtyard at Phaestos.

        From the roof the sea was merely a far-off blue sliver. But when a ship was heading to Komos, she could see its sail poking up from the horizon long before it arrived in port – and Demeter relied on her for early warnings of approaching visitors. Absent-mindedly pulling at the gold ring in her right ear, Praxinoa swung her head slowly, narrowing her black eyes to scan the indigo horizon. She particularly wanted to Nafa’a again because she hoped he would be carrying his Queen’s words of praise for the throat, finger, arm and ear jewels of gold crafted by Oria. Oria, the near-legendary mute dwarf jeweller, lived at Knossos. At the thought of the throat jewels, Praxinoa involuntarily smield and flicked back her hair, bound by a leather lace into one long braid, from her shoulder to her back.

        The last time she had travelled northeast up to Knossos for trade, Praxinoa had spent a whole day choosing jewels for Nafa’a’s Queen. In the end, there was one which she hadn’t been able to part with. It was an arc of golden flowers, swung between two chains of gold. Each floweret rose out of its calyx on a delicate stalk and when Praxinoa put it on, the flowers quivered with her breathing, as if a summer zephyr played through them.

        Praxinoa was enchanted. Oria, whose clever fingers spoke for her, had grinned hugely to see her creation fulfil its concept, trembling above the warm brown mounds of a woman’s bosom. Knossos had many talented jewellers but it was not until Oria was fully trained that he jewel creations of Kefti became startlingly original as well as beautiful. Oria had been a tiny child who could not speak but drew patterns constantly. She grew to a small, stunted woman, one whose fingers worked the gold into fresh, stunning designs. Now Kefti was becoming known throughout the world for the beauty of Oria’s work. All the Traders were asking if there were any of her golden jewels available for Trade.

        When Nafa’a had last visited Phaestos, before the winter seas made his return home too dangerous, he’d asked the same question. Praxinoa grinned, dimples deep in her cheeks, saying casually that she thought she could get some for him, but if she did, what did have of similar value to Trade?

        “Ivory,P’no,” roared Nafa’a at once, his great hazel eyes with their red-streaked whites now serious as the preliminaries of Trade began. “Frankincense tree gum, smell most beautiful.”

        Praxinoa considered. Ivory was very rare, much rarer than gold. And a new scent was almost the same. So she agreed to Trade. She asked if the jewellery was for further trade, or a specific person?

        “Our Queen,” he said simply.

        “Is your Queen a small woman, or big, like me?”

        Nafa’a laughed uproariously at the suggestion that his Queen and Praxinoa were the same size. “She proper big woman. You be her daughter, not grow up!”

        “So the Queen must be a very large woman,” she confided later to Sophia, “and I don’t really know how the throat jewels will look on her. I’m a little anxious!”

        But Sophia was not interested in a queen’s jewellery. “What healing herbs do they have in his country?” she wanted to know.

        Praxinoa had no idea, but vowed to find out. She had asked Nafa’a the question the next day but he also didn’t know. “I tell next time I come to Komos,” he promised Praxinoa.

        When Praxinoa told Oria she just had to keep the strand of trembling flower jewels, the little mute grinned and grunted her version of laughter. “But I still want to Trade. I me4an, ivory – you’d like some, wouldn’t you,?” Oria threw her a speaking look and Praxinoa said triumphantly, “Of course you would. So make me something to Trade and I’ll get you some!”

        Oria had made two very beautiful throat jewels, one a wide swoop of gold on which dolphins danced, complete with water drops flung in the air. The other was like a snake, each curve of its body made separately and linked together in such a way that the snake seemed to move around its wearer’s neck. Praxinoa thought they were marvellous, but still not as breath-taking as her quivering flowers.

        Still thinking of Oria, Praxinoa went to the southernmost edge of the roof to scan the horizon again, hoping for a glimpse of sail on the scrap of sea she could see. Doricha ws also on the roof, hair pushed under a pouched work hat, heavy body sweating in her green tunic. She’d been instructing some children, her team of House workers, in laying out lengths of freshly dyed cloth to dry in the morning sun.

        “See anything?” Doricha asked, coming over. Tendrils of black hair stuck sweatily to her forehead and cheeks. She mopped at them with the back of one cloth-circled wrist.

        “No – but it’s early in the sailing season,” Praxinoa replied, casting an eye over the lengths of cloth. “That’s a good batch of dyeing – I like that deep yellow – how do you get it?”

        Doricha pulled off her leather had, tossing her hair out and sighing with relief as she lifted air into its heaviness with her fingers. “From the red lilies. You know how their stamens are full of that dark rust powder? When you dissolve that powder in heated water and leave the cloth in it overnight, the cloth turns this great colour. It’ll look good with the violet colour I get from the murex shells, don’t you think?” She surveyed her handiwork with pride. “I’m glad you like it – we’re doing this specially for the Spring Games.”

        “Not long now!” exclaimed Praxinoa. The two women looked at each other and smiled. Doricha like Praxinoa but felt a little in awe of her. Everybody sandg Praxinoa’s praises – how even though she had been Trading for only five cycles of seasons, she was one of the most successful Traders Phaestos had ever had – and there had been some! Deitia was one, Phaestos’s first Trader, long before Praxinoa was born, whose name was now used by an Honoured One at the Grove. The first Deitia had Traded a store of dried apricots, fresh fruit and wine, oil from the revered olice, nuts, and lengths of heavy wool cloth, all in exchange for a small open boat, big enough to hold purse nets and crayfish and shrimp traps. The boat, Phaestos’s first, allowed the House’s fishers to venture farther out to sea, increasing their harvest greatly.

        But Praxinoa had done more than that – she had gone with the fishing boats early one summer morning, coaxing them across the south sea to the place of the monkeys, Cyrenacia, right into its white sand port of Darnah, returning dressed in odd clothes and with a monkey on her shoulder just as the autumn winds made the seas perilous. Doricha didn’t know how Praxinoa could do it – all those days and nights on the sea, which was constantly moving, as far as she could tell, and at the other end, people she didn’t know and places she’d never slept in before. Just the thought of it made Doricha anxious.

        One of Doricha’s workers ran up with a question, a youngster of about six. Praxinoa saw the look on the boy’s face and thought how much she admired Doricha, and her way of handling her teams in running the House. There was so much to do – how did Doricha manage it all, and stay so calm? When Doricha turned back to Praxinoa, Praxinoa was looking as if she had a particularly pleasant thought in her head.

        “What are you thinking that makes you look so pleased?” Doricha asked. Praxinoa gave the tiniest shake of her head, not knowing quite how to voice her thought to Doricha, saying instead: “The Games – they’re so close!”

 
 
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