The mist clung tightly to the waters of the Adriatic. Normally, when the fog was this thick, most shipmasters would prefer to remain anchored rather than risk collision with one of the many rocky outcroppings that dotted the coastline of southern Italia. A single small ship cut silently through the water in defiance of the elements. The sleek galley sailed low in the water, its hull and sails darker than most ships of its type. A small man of forty-two years with dark hair and eyes clung to a rope on the ship’s prow, searching for the signal that would indicate that his customers were in place. Compared to the payout, the risks associated with this voyage were nothing spectacular and barely merited a passing thought. He had seen far worse in his two decades plying the Mediterranean Sea smuggling goods past avaricious magistrates and warlords to individuals who wanted what they wanted with no questions asked. If tonight’s drop went smoothly, he and his crew would soon be in Thebes or Tarentum or any one of the more disreputable ports that dotted the Mediterranean where they could find sanctuary and new business.
Due in no small part to his keen eye for talent, not to mention his knack for knowing a good deal when he saw one, Anech had traded in his leaky flat bottomed barge that he had once used to travel the estuaries of the Nile Delta, looking for work wherever he could find it, for a sleek Phoenician galley he called the Heron. The ship was well-built and fast, boasting two sails and a dozen oars on each side, more than enough to power the craft quickly and efficiently regardless of the weather. As outstanding as his ship was, his crew was even better. Anech recruited his crew from all across the Mediterranean, generally taking on a man or two whenever he made a port call. The crewmen waiting silently for his signal were clad in trousers, tunics, and breechclouts made out of furs, leather, linen, wool, and gods only knew what else, representing almost every nation in the known world that depended on the sea for their livelihood.
Unusually for one who worked on the water for a living, Anech was a fervent devotee of the god Anubis. He found it fitting that just as the entrance to the underworld teemed with souls both good and bad, the inns and taverns of every port city were rife with sailors of varying quality looking for work. Just as Anubis would weigh a man’s heart on his scales to determine his true nature, Anech was always able to see past the usual boasts and bluster and weigh the measure of the man before him. Looking around at his men, he was well and truly pleased. This was the best crew that he had ever had. They were discrete, loyal, and competent to the last man. A few more runs with this lot, and he would be able to return to his village in the swamps near the mouth of the Nile to live out his days in comfort.
Even though his eyesight was beginning to fade as he grew older, Anech was still able to spot the brief flash of a lantern about two bowshots from the ship. He recognized the prearranged signal and gestured to his crew to begin work. Crewmen quietly scurried about the ship, striking the two sails and moving their illicit cargo toward the railing. The crew lowered a rowboat into the water and the two carefully-selected rowers climbed down a rope ladder and took their place at the oars, one in front, one in back, with room enough in the middle for cargo. The crew moved quickly, displaying the calm economy of motion that can only be achieved by a group of men that is accustomed to working closely together. The anchor dropped and the cargo was made ready, all in complete silence.
His navigator signaled with a discreet nod once the sails and their associated lines were stowed satisfactorily. He was the crew’s sole Hebrew, and went by the name of Binyamin. Almost fifteen years ago, Anech had bought Binyamin from a slave market in Sidon. Prior to his enslavement, Binyamin had lived as a street urchin until he had been captured for minor thievery by the local authorities. Even after more than a decade of sailing together, Anech did not know much about the man’s personal history. Judging by the ease with which Binyamin was able to learn new languages and his ability to read and write a variety of tongues, Anech suspected that he had never been entirely truthful about his background, but did not press the young man on the matter.
Occasionally, a customer would react in surprise when they learned that the Egyptian smuggler’s third-in-command was a Hebrew. According to whispered stories told around evening cooking fires, that same god had once wrought incredible destruction throughout Egypt despite the protection of Osirus, Ra, Horus, Anubis, and a dozen other deities. Despite Binyamin’s ancestry, Anech has known a good investment when he saw one, and gave the boy the opportunity to buy his way out of bondage by working aboard his ship. Binyamin stayed on, and soon became one of the most versatile members of the crew. He could mend a sail in the morning, coax nigh unimaginable speeds from the Heron all day, and then negotiate a recalcitrant merchant into a corner as the sun set.
To his right, tugging on one of the sides of his long moustache stood Thraxos, the giant Minoan. Anyone unfamiliar with Thraxos simply assumed he was born of some unwashed tribe of savages from north of the Danube river. Actually, Thraxos had no more Barbarian blood in him than Anech, and hailed from Crete. Such trivialities did not stop Thraxos from dressing in trousers and tattooing his body in strange patterns. He said it helped keep the crew in line. Anech had one seen Thraxos beat three men unconscious in a tavern brawl when he had suspected that they were colluding against him in a dice game. Anech hired him on the spot, and Thraxos had proved his worth many times over in the ensuing years, serving as the Bosun at sea and an enforcer and bodyguard while on land. Thraxos was extremely loyal to his Egyptian employer, and ensured that his will was carried out regardless of circumstance.
Thraxos stopped stretching to glower at two men who were lowering jars filled with the fine Cretan wine into the waiting rowboat.
“If either of you bastards spills even a drop, I will tie you together and throw you overboard. I do not give a rat’s asshole whose worthless tribe kidnapped whose great-great-great grandfather’s pet goat, and neither does anyone else on the ship,” he growled in a harsh voice that still managed to carry across the length of the galley. A crew member that had been in the act of stowing the smaller of the ship’s two sails moved a few steps further away from the massive, baldheaded Minoan.
Naturally, he was talking to Vertus and Brondan. The two hated each other for reasons the rest of the crew did not entirely understand. Vertus was a stoic Illyrian with a hard, pinched face while Brondan was a loud, boastful Gaul with red cheeks and wide shoulders from the northern reaches of the Adriatic. They had been hired onto the crew around the same time, and had never been able to stand one another. Still, Vertus was an excellent thief, and Brondan had an encyclopedic knowledge of the patchwork of Gallic tribes that inhabited the northern Mediterranean who were always happy to trade their exquisite ironwork for luxuries from the East. For Anech, the individual strengths of the two men outweighed their combined burden. The men glared at one another continued to lower the fragile clay pots down to the waiting hands of the two men in the rowboat.
As always, Anech had two of his best men going ashore. Shore work was dangerous and required both subtlety and a willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice. Since he needed to depend on his agents ashore to react appropriately to a variety of situations, he only entrusted a handful of his men to handle such delicate work. One man, Daryus, was an Anatolian who had traded spices in a past life. When his ship had been destroyed by sea bandits, Daryus found himself a pauper begging for coppers on the streets of Corinth. Anech had hired him for his business acumen and knowledge of eastern trade routes, and relied on him heavily when it came to securing favorable concessions during the delicate negotiations that were a near daily occurrence in the life of a smuggler. The other man, who went by Hanno, was from the area around Carthage, a city settled by the Phoenicians much as the nearby city of Croton was settled by Greeks, whose respective homelands could support far fewer mouths than the banks of the Nile. Though still fairly new to the life of smuggling, Anech felt that he showed great promise, and he wanted him to see how things worked ashore.
Anech watched with approval as Daryus deftly maneuvered the last of the heavy jars of wine into the rowboat; not an easy task in the pitching sea. He used an oar to push off the side of the boat while Daryus undid the line. As the men rowed past the front of the galley, Anech waved to get Daryus’ attention.
“Remember what we discussed about the particulars of the trade. I have worked with Patroclus in the past. He is a fairly honest merchant but he will try and squeeze every bent copper from you before agreeing to a price,” he said in a low voice.
Beside him, Binyamin chuckled wryly as he coiled a rope around his forearm, “He’s in a tight spot. If he tries it, we’ll tell him we’ll take these jugs further south and see what the Syracusans will pay.”
From the boat, Daryus nodded in agreement. “Even if we charged him twice as much, he’d still turn a profit with the taxes they’re asking for whenever a ship docks in port.”
“Either way, any less than fifteen drachmas a jug, and I am taking it out of your cut,” Anech said, dark eyes twinkling even in the early morning gloom. Behind him, a few of his crewmen exchanged wry glances. His men knew that he would never pay them less than their fair share, though he often threatened to garnish wages or worse. Thanks to Thraxos, Anech almost never had to play the part of tyrant. The two smugglers began rowing in tandem toward the shore, which was barely visible in the mist.
The carefully maintained rowboat was truly the workhorse of smuggling operations such as this. In situations where a city’s port was closely guarded, the Heron would generally travel several leagues up the coast from the city in order to anchor and offload their wares far from prying eyes. The city of Croton in particular was a very popular destination for smugglers like Anech. Its ruling council levied massive taxes on ships entering its port, causing many merchants to make extralegal arrangements with smugglers to obtain goods more cheaply. The City Watch was both aggressive and well equipped, but the risks associated with doing business were well worth it to Anech. The rowboat kept the merchants honest; if they tried to betray the smugglers, they would only seize a small fraction of the Heron’s wares at the cost of thousands of Drachmas in future lost business, as smugglers often discussed the trustworthiness of various merchants among themselves. Even so, Anech still felt a knot in his stomach when he sent his men into the lion’s den. From long experience, he knew his hands would not stop shaking until both of the boat’s trips were complete.