Read the first 3 chapters


Isle of ShadowsChapter 1

Rhodes, 227 BC

Seven Days before the Great Quake

 In the deceitful calm of the days preceding disaster, while Rhodes still glittered like a white jewel in the Aegean, Tessa of Delos planned to open her wrists.

The death of her body was long overdue. Her soul had died ten years ago.

Ten years this day.

Tessa took in a breath of salty air and shivered. From her lofty position outside Glaucus’s hillside home, the city’s torches flickered to life in the dusk below. Across the city the day’s tumult at the docks slowed. The massive statue of Helios at the harbor’s frothy mouth caught the last rays of the sun as it slipped into a cobalt sea. The torch Helios thrust skyward seemed to burst aflame, as though lit by the sun god himself.

He had been her only constant these ten years, this giant likeness of Helios. A silent sentinel who kept vigil as life ripped away freedom and hope. Painful as it was, tonight she wanted only to remember. To be alone, to remember, and to mourn.

“Tessa!” A wine-sodden voice erupted from the open door behind her.

The symposium had begun only minutes ago, but Glaucus was already deep into his cups. Bad form in any company, but Glaucus rarely cared. Tessa inhaled the tang of sea air again and placed a steadying hand against the smooth alabaster column supporting the roof. She did not answer, nor turn, when she heard her fat master shuffle onto the portico.

“Get yourself back into the house!” Glaucus punctuated his command with a substantial belch.

“Soon.” She lifted her eyes to the western sky. “I wish to watch the sun god take his leave.”

A household servant crept out and set two torches blazing. An oily smell surged, then dissipated. Harsh laughter, mingled with the tinny sound of a flute, floated from the house.

Glaucus pushed his belly against her back and grabbed her arm. The linen chitôn she’d taken care to arrange fell away and exposed her shoulder. She reached to replace it, but Glaucus caught her hand. He brought his mouth close to her ear, and she could smell his breath, foul as days-old fish. Her stomach clenched and she turned her head.

“The others are asking for you. ‘Where is your hetaera?’ they say. ‘The one with more opinions than Carthage has ships.’”

Tessa closed her eyes. She had long entertained Glaucus’s political friends with her outspoken thoughts on government and power. While his wife remained hidden away in the women’s quarters, Glaucus’s hetaera was displayed like an expensive pet with sharp teeth. Others believed she led an enviable life, but the years had stripped that illusion.

She stroked the polished filigree of the gold necklace encircling her throat. Glaucus had fastened it there, a gilding for his personal figure of bronze.

“Now, Tessa.” Glaucus pulled her toward the door.

Her heart reached for the statue, clinging to her first memory of it, when Delos had been home and innocence had still been hers.

When she opened her wrists, she would do it there.

* * *

The andrôn, central room of the men’s quarters, smelled of roasted meat and burning olive oil. Glaucus paused in the doorway, awaiting the attention of those who had curried enough of his favor to be invited. When the small crowd lounging on low couches at the room’s perimeter quieted, he shoved her toward the lamp-lit center. “Tessa, everyone! Making a grand entrance!”

His audience laughed and clapped, then returned their attention to the food and wine on the low tables beside them. In the corner, a young girl dressed in gauzy fabric blew thin streams of air into a small flute. Tessa’s eyes locked onto the girl’s. A private understanding passed between them that they were both objects of entertainment, and the girl looked away, as though ashamed to be seen thus. A desire to protect the girl surfaced in Tessa, a maternal feeling that of late seemed only a breath away.

Glaucus guided her to a couch and forced her to the gold-trimmed red cushions, then lowered himself at her right and leaned against her body, his personal cushion. He reached for the black bowl gilded with scenes of the gods in the center of their table, and ladled wine into Tessa’s goblet. He raised his own cup, still full, to the rom. “To Tessa!” His guests added their raised glasses. “Always the center of attention!”

Tessa’s gaze swept the room. The moment was suspended – cups raised in her honor, insincere smiles fixed to drunken faces, lamplight flickering across tables piled with grapes and almonds and figs, and behind it all, the flute’s lament.

Would she remember this night, even in the afterlife?

“To Tessa!” Shouts went round the room, wine cups were drained and thumped back to tables, and the party quickened around her.  The smile she forced to her own lips was like wax, artificial and stiff.

Glaucus reached for her, but she pushed away the pawing hand.

He laughed. “It would appear my Tessa is a bit high-spirited tonight.” His voice was directed to those nearby. “And what shall be done with a mischievous hetaera?” His thick-lipped smile and raised eyebrow took in the room and elicited another round of laughter. He nodded, then turned his attention to the man on his right, resuming a conversation whose beginning she must have missed.

“Your objections earlier to the naturalization of the Jews are noted, Spiro. But it can often be expedient to extend citizenship to the foreigners among us.”

Glaucus’s bulk obscured his listener, but Spiro’s voice poured like warm oil. Underneath his smooth tones was cold iron of anger. He was one of few among the strategoi to contradict Glaucus publicly.

“Like-minded foreigners, perhaps. But the Jews make it no secret that they despise our Greek ways. They disdain even our proudest achievement, our Helios of the harbor. They must be expunged, not embraced by weak-willed politicians who – ”

Glaucus raised a pudgy hand. “You presume an authority not yours, Spiro.”

“Only a matter of time.”

Tessa lowered her chin to mask a smile. To hear someone defy Glaucus warmed her more than the wine could have.

Glaucus snorted. “Again you presume. The people of this island are too clever to choose seductive charm over solid leadership.”

Spiro laughed, smooth and low. “Why, Glaucus, seductive charm? I did not realize you had noticed.”

“Ha! Perhaps the women are affected, but it is the men who vote.”

Spiro leaned forward, his eyes now on Tessa. “And we both know where men find their opinions.”

Glaucus snorted again and swung his legs to the floor. It took several tries to raise his ponderous body from the cushions. “Get drunk, Spiro. Enjoy your delusions for one more night. But next week I sail to Crete, and I expect them to fully support my efforts.” He nudged Tessa with a sandaled toe. “Stay where you are. I will be back.”

Tessa watched him leave the room, and relief at his temporary absence flooded her veins. He expected her to travel to Crete with him next week. She had no intention of stepping onto the ship.

Spiro slid to her couch, an elbow on the cushion Glaucus had vacated. He was older than she, perhaps thirty, clean-shaven like most, but wore his jet-black hair longer, braided away from his face and falling just above his shoulders. His eyes, deep set and darker than the night sea, studied hers. A smile played at his lips. “What are you still doing with that bore, Tessa? You could do better.”

“One slave master is as another. The only better thing worth desiring is freedom.” She was not truly Glaucus’s slave in the usual sense, and Spiro knew it, but it made little difference.

He smiled fully, and his gaze traveled from her eyes, slowly down to her waist. He took liberties, but she had long ago become heedless of offense.

“That is what I like about you, Tessa. One never meets a hetaera who speaks of freedom. They are resolved to their place. But you are a woman like no other in Rhodes.”

“Why should I not be free?”

Spiro chuckled softly and inched closer. “Why, indeed? Ask the gods, who make some women wives and give others as slaves.” Spiro’s hand skimmed the cushions and came to rest on her thigh. “If you were mine, Tessa, I would treat you as you deserve, as an equal. Glaucus acts as though he owns you, but we all know he pays dearly for your favors. Perhaps it is you who owns him.”

Spiro’s fingers dug into her leg, and his eyes roamed her face and body again. The attention brought neither pleasure nor disgust, a reminder that her heart had been cast from bronze. But a flicker of fear nipped at her composure. Spiro was like one of the mighty Median horses – raw power held in check, capable of trampling the innocent if unleashed.

A shadow loomed above them, but Spiro did not remove his hand. Instead, he arched a perfect eyebrow at Glaucus and smiled.

The expected flash of anger did not come. Glaucus laughed.

“First, you think to rule the island, Spiro, and now you think to steal Tessa from me, as though she has the free will to choose whom she wants?”

Spiro shrugged and slid to the next couch.

Glaucus plopped down between them. “She will never be yours, Spiro. Even when I am dead, her owner will only hand her to the next man in line to have paid for her.” He waggled a finger at Tessa. “She is worth waiting for, though, I can tell you.” Another coarse laugh.

Something broke loose in Tessa.

Was it the vow she had taken while drinking in the sight of the harbor’s bronze statue? The assurance that nothing she did could hold consequence? Or perhaps the ten years of bondage, commemorated this night with nothing more than continued abuse.

She rose to her feet, her blood like cold silver and her voice hardening to iron. At the proud lift of her chin, the room silenced, as though a goddess had ascended a pedestal.  She looked down on Glaucus and a flame of hatred burned against her chest.

“May the gods deal with you as you have mistreated me, Glaucus of Rhodes. I will have no part of you.”

In the silence following her haughty pronouncement, Glaucus giggled – a nervous little sound – and flicked his eyes left and right to his guests. He reached up and caressed her arm. “Your heart is not in the festivities tonight, my dear. I understand.” His voice patronized, placated. “I will meet you in the inner courtyard later.”

Tessa wrenched her arm free of his clutches and glanced at Spiro, chilled by the look in his eyes. She would not stay, though she hated to be dismissed. She glided from the room without a backward glance.

In the hall outside the andrôn, she paused. This house was a nauseous thing, yet the world outside was no more pleasant, nor safe. Not for her. She turned from the front door and moved deeper into the estate.

The hallway opened to a central courtyard, with corridors branching away like tentacles. A colonnaded walkway hemmed the courtyard, its roof covered with terra-cotta tiles.  In the center, a blackened cistern gaped and beside it a large birdcage, its lone inhabitant a black mynah with an orange beak. The bird chirped a greeting at her entrance.

Glaucus had said he would find her in the courtyard, but from the sounds of the andrôn’s laughter, the party raged despite her absence. She should be safe for a few minutes. She crossed to the bird she had adopted as her own and simply named Mynah, and put a finger through the iron bars to let Mynah peck a hello.

Tessa’s head throbbed, as it always did when she wore her hair pulled back. She reached behind, found the pin that cinched her dark ringlets, and yanked. Hair loosed and fell around her shoulders, and she ran her fingers through it, feeling the relief.

At a sharp intake of breath from across the room, she whirled. “Who’s there?”

The voice was  soft in the darkness. “I am sorry, mistress. I did not mean to startle you.”

Tessa’s heart grasped at the kindness and respect in the voice, the first she had encountered this evening. She put a hand to her unfastened hair. Somehow she still found it within herself to be embarrassed by this small impropriety.

The man took hesitant steps forward. “Are you ill, mistress? Is there something you require?” He was clean-shaven and quite tall, with a lanky build and craggy face. Glaucus’s Jewish head servant, Simeon.

“No, Simeon. No, I am not ill. Thank you.” She sank to a bench.

The older man dipped his head and backed away.

Tessa reached out a hand. “Perhaps – perhaps some water?”

He smiled. “I’ll only be a moment.”

She had disgraced Glaucus, in spite of his effort to laugh off her comments. How would he repay the damage she had done him? His position as a strategos of the polis of Rhodes outranked all other concerns in his life, and he would consider her disrespect in the presence of other city leaders as treasonous.

In the three years since Glaucus had paid her owner the hetaera price and she had become his full-time companion, they had developed an unusual relationship. While he would not allow her think herself free, he had discovered her aptitude for grasping the intricacies of politics, the maneuvering necessary to keep Rhodes a strong trading nation. Power was a game played shrewdly in Rhodes, as in all the Greek world, and as a leader in this democratic society, Glaucus had gained a competitive edge when he gained Tessa.

Rhodian society had declared her to be a rarity. beautiful, brilliant, and enslaved. The extent to which the decisions of the city-state passed through her slave-bound fingers was unknown to most. And in this she held a measure of power over Glaucus.

Perhaps it is you who owns him.

Simeon returned with a stone mug in his hands. He held it to her and covered her fingers with his own gnarled hand as she reached for it. “You must take care for yourself, mistress.”

His informality breached the social division of their classes, but Tessa smiled at the small kindness, the concern in his voice.

“If you are not ill, Tessa, perhaps you should return to the symposium. I should not like to see Glaucus angry with you.”

Tessa exhaled. “Glaucus can wait.”

Another noise at the courtyard’s edge. They both turned at the rustle of fabric. A girl glided into the room, dressed in an elegant yellow chitôn, her dark hair flowing around her shoulders. She stopped suddenly when she saw them.

“Simeon? Tessa? What are you doing here?”

Simeon bent at the waist, his eyes on the floor. “The lady was feeling ill. She requested water.” His eyes flicked up at Tessa, their expression unreadable, then he slipped from the courtyard.

Tessa turned her attention to the girl, inhaling the resolve to survive this encounter. At fourteen, Persephone hovered on the delicate balance between girl and woman. Glowing pale skin framed by dark hair gave her the look of an ivory doll, but it was her startlingly blue eyes that drew one’s attention. In recent months, as she had gained understanding of Tessa’s position in her father’s life, Persephone had grown more hostile.

She raised her chin and studied Tessa. “Does my father know you are out here?” Her tone contradicted the delicacy of her features.

Tessa nodded, choosing not to defend her actions.

“So he let his plaything out of her cage?”

She sighed and closed her eyes in a brief moment of pity for the angry child. The girl’s mother had abandoned Persephone for the comfort of madness, and the daughter feigned authority in the house, perhaps to right this unspoken wrong.

At Tessa’s silence, Persephone flitted to where Mynah cheeped inside its bars. She picked a leaf from a potted tree and held it to the bird. “But who am I to speak of cages?” She raised her eyes to Tessa. “We are all trapped here in some way. You. Me. Mother.”

“Cages can be escaped.” Tessa kept her voice low. She had never dared to offer Persephone wisdom, though her heart ached for the girl.

Persephone turned toward her, studied her. “When you find the key, let me know.”

“Tessa!” Glaucus’s voice was thick with wine and demanding.

Tessa turned toward the doorway. The girl beside her took a step backward.

“There you are.” He waddled toward the courtyard’s center. “I’ve sent them all away. I am sick of their company.” He seemed to notice the girl. “Persephone, why are you not in bed? Get yourself to the women’s quarters.”

Tessa could feel the hate course through the girl as if it were her own body.

“I am not tired. I wished to see the stars.” She pointed at the purple sky above the open courtyard.

Glaucus towered over her, sneering. “Well, the stars have no wish to see you. Remove yourself.”

“And will you say goodnight to Mother?” The sarcastic words were tossed to Glaucus like raw bait.

Tessa silently cheered the girl’s audacity.

Glaucus was not so kind. “Get out!”

“And leave you to your harlot?”

In a quick motion belying his obesity, Glaucus raised the back of his hand to the girl and struck her face. She reeled backward a step or two, hand against her cheek and eyes wide.

Tessa stepped between father and daughter. “Leave her alone!”

Glaucus turned on Tessa and laughed. “And when did you two become friends?”

Persephone glared into her father’s corpulent face. “I despise you both.”

Glaucus raised his arm again, his hand a fist this time, but Tessa was faster. She caught the lowering arm by the wrist and shoved it backward. Glaucus rocked back on his heels and turned his hatred on her.

It meant nothing anymore, this hatred. She would reflect it back on the foul man, remain untainted. She kept her eyes trained on Glaucus but spoke to the girl, her voice low and commanding. “Go to bed, Persephone.” She sensed the girl back away, heard her stomp from the room.

The anger on Glaucus’s face melted into something else. A chuckle, sickening in its condescension.

“High-spirited is one thing, Tessa. But be careful you do not go too far. Remember who keeps you in those fine clothes and wraps your ankles and wrists in jewels. You are not your own.”

But she soon would be.

Glaucus reached for her, and she used her forearm to swat him away like a noisome insect. “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch her. Take your fat, drunken self out of here.”

The amusement on Glaucus’s face played itself out. The anger returned, but Tessa was ready.

Glaucus’s words hissed between clenched teeth. “I don’t know what has come over you tonight, Tessa, but I will teach you your place. You belong to me, body and spirit, and I will have you!” His heavy hands clutched her shoulders, and his alcohol-soaked breath blew hot in her face.

Every part of Tessa’s inner being rose up in defense.

It would all end tonight.

 

Chapter 2

Tessa raised both fists to her face, jerked them outward, and broke Glaucus’s grip on her shoulders. She took a step backward. “Get away from me, you filthy beast.”

Glaucus seemed to accept the insult as a challenge. A fire sparked in his eyes, one she had not seen before, and cause for fear. She took another step, placed more distance between them in the courtyard. A rare breeze blew into the enclosure as though to cool her anger, to save Tessa from herself.

But she had no desire to be saved. Not tonight.

“What did you think, Tessa?” Glaucus said, his speech slurred. “Did you think you are my equal, simply because I humor you with news of the city?”

“Humor me?” Tessa straightened. “You humor me? You could not lead a carrion bird to a carcass without me, let alone lead a city.”

His hand shot forward, and the slap rang in the silent courtyard, its echo bouncing back from the colonnade’s tiled roof.

Tessa placed a cool hand against her stinging cheek and raised a defiant chin.

“Strike me, beat me, kill me if you like, Glaucus. But the truth remains unchanged. You need me. You need my insight, my opinions, the information I glean in places you wouldn’t dare enter. If that doesn’t make me your equal…”

Glaucus laughed and folded his arms across his girth. “Finally you speak reason! Nothing can make you my equal. You are and always will be a pleasant, if challenging, distraction. Nothing more.”

Movement at the side of the courtyard caught her eye.

“Is there anything you need, Master?” Simeon’s question was for Glaucus, but his eyes were on Tessa.

Glaucus half-turned and waved the man off. “Leave us, Simeon. This is no concern of yours.”

Simeon bowed his way out, and Glaucus scowled. “That old goat has outlived his usefulness. I have arranged for his replacement already.”

“Do you have affection for anyone other than yourself?” Tessa counted on shaky fingers. “Your wife, your daughter, Simeon – faithful to you always.” She paused as his expression grew rancid. “And me. None of us are more to you than useful tools, amusing toys to be discarded or abused as you wish.”

Glaucus reached to Tessa and touched the gold circlet at her neck. There was a cunning behind his drunken half-smile, an unfamiliar slyness. “I think at last my hetaera understands me.” He curled a finger around the gold band and pulled her toward himself. “You exist to be used, Tessa. That is your purpose. Did you think you were entitled to more? Do you dream of happiness, of a family perhaps?”

At his mockery of her unspoken desire, she hissed a reply. “I hate you.”

Glaucus held her stare, his face a breath from hers, then smiled and shrugged one shoulder. “And why should that concern me?”

It was a simple question, quietly asked, but Tessa staggered backward a step.

She had nothing left then, nothing at all. The power she believed she wielded over Glaucus was an illusion. The role she played, of politically-astute companion to one of the country’s most powerful men, was nothing more than a bit of theater, a mask she assumed. And she would never have her secret wish.

The decision she’d made before the symposium hardened. She swore to Helios that before his first rays lit the Rhodian sky in the morning, she would offer herself at his feet and be free.

While her thoughts ran unbidden, Glaucus sidled even closer. As if from outside herself, she watched his hands caress her arms, pull her into a harsh embrace.

Yes, a family. A child, yes. A way to redeem the past. Release came with the acknowledgment.

She whispered into his ear the first thing that came to her mind, a familiar thought she had never before given voice. “I will kill you while you sleep.”

There was no reaction, save for his hands traveling up her arms, to her throat. His fingers dug into her flesh, restricted her air.

She lifted her arms to fight him off, but then relaxed.

Go ahead. Do it. Perhaps she hadn’t the courage to do it herself.

More pressure. Less air. Tessa sucked in tiny gasps of breath, but did not resist.

Ten years. Ten years tonight.

She saw in her memory that girl who stood at the rail of the ship from Delos, not much older than Glaucus’s daughter, naïve and carefree. She remembered and mourned for the young girl. Rhodes was her prison, her cage, as Persephone had said. It was time to escape.

And yet…

Would she die as she had lived, at the whim of another?

A deep passion to control her own fate, in this, her last act before she entered the underworld, surged up from an unknown place.

She scrabbled at Glaucus’s meaty fingers on her neck, but she could not tear them away. Cold spots of black trembled in her vision.

Not him. Not him. She would do it herself.

She called on the hatred of ten years, let it boil and rage inside of her until it flowed like strength into her arms, her hands, her fingers. She reached out and dug her fingers into Glaucus’s eyes.

He yelped like a dog who’d been kicked and released her neck to grab at his face.

Tessa filled her lungs with sweet air and pushed him backward. She tried to step around him, but he wrapped an arm around her waist.

“You’re not going anywhere.” His voice was a throaty gurgle. He turned her to him and pulled her close.

By the gods, her attack had fed his excitement, like fuel to a lusting fire. She beat at his face with clenched fists.

His breath was labored, and he was still unsteady from too much wine, but he was twice her size. “I’ve had enough of the high-spirited hetaera.” She could feel his spittle against her cheek. “I think I shall put an end to her tonight.”

Tessa jerked her knee upward, desperate and swift.

Glaucus howled and bent forward, revealing the bald circle at the back of his head that she so despised.

She dug her fingers into his shoulders and shoved.

He stumbled backward one step, then two. His balance shifted. His weight fell against one of the columns supporting the roof that covered the walkway.

It happened slowly yet all at once. The column shook under Glaucus’s weight. His feet shuffled but lost purchase. The wine did its work, and he fell. One shoulder bore the impact, and hit the courtyard paving with a crack. He lay at her feet at the edge of the walkway, face up, eyes closed but breathing hard.

Tessa panted, one hand against her churning belly. Had he had enough for one night?

But then there was a sliding sound above, like a cooking pot being dragged across a stone floor.

Tessa looked up. One single terra-cotta tile slid down the roof, one large square of baked earth shaken loose by the jolt to the column. Down it slid, until it tipped over the lip of the roof and spun twice as it fell. Then buried itself in the center of her master’s forehead, cleaving flesh and bone.

Tessa did not move, did not blink.

She watched his chest for his next breath, but it did not come.

She braved another look at his face. Blood pooled on the stones beneath his head. The terra-cotta tile remained upright, embedded in his skull. The way the men at the docks sometimes left their knives buried in the cutting blocks after chopping the head from a fish.

Glaucus had crossed to the afterlife.

Tessa turned her face away, still clutching her stomach, waiting for the remorse that did not come.

Two beats of silence, and Simeon returned to the courtyard.

* * *

Spiro lifted his fourth cup of the night, spilled three drops onto the andrôn’s floor in a libation to Helios, and drained the cup. He would wait for his moment.

Glaucus had called an end to his symposium and tossed Spiro and the other city leaders into the street before Spiro had drunk his fill of wine. And so the party simply moved to another’s home, Xenophon’s men’s quarters, a double of Glaucus’s andrôn.

Across the room, their new host bowed low. “Welcome, men. Glaucus’s headache is my gain. I am honored to host you this evening.” Xenophon smiled as one who had bested an opponent in the gymnasium. He and Glaucus served as two of the ten strategoi, leaders who had proven themselves militarily. These men formed alliances when it suited them, but always there was rivalry.

If Spiro were to lead Rhodes to the place he dreamed, both Glaucus and Xenophon must be dealt with, along with any others who stood in opposition. Many of those against him were present tonight.

Spiro surveyed the room through narrowed eyes. Dim-witted, most of them, believing they understood the game of power. Did any of them believe the headache Glaucus claimed? Or did they know the truth, that Tessa’s disrespect had prompted him to end the party and deal with her properly?

Tessa. The image of her shimmered in his mind, like a treasure longing to be possessed. Spiro smiled, amusing himself with thoughts of Glaucus dealing with her even now. Would he strike her? Hold her down until fear sparked from her eyes, overcoming her insolence? Would he wait for her to weep, to beg for mercy? He indulged the delicious images a few moments longer, until the conversation around him drew his attention away from the pleasure.

An aging politician on his left raised a bony finger. “Glaucus will lead Rhodes to future prosperity we have only imagined.”

Spiro leaned back and sipped his wine. This conversation was his reason for coming. “Glaucus is a fool.” He tossed the comment into the center of the room and waited for it to burst into flame.

As he hoped, all eyes turned toward him and bodies tensed. Spiro relaxed into the cushions and raised his cup to the others. “We in this room understand the value of powerful leadership. Glaucus continues to undermine that leadership, forcing us to be led by the populace, by the majority’s will – the majority of whom are also fools.”

“You go too far, Spiro.” Another magistrate, this one younger and full of fire. “Democracy in Rhodes remains intact in spite of the Macedonian, who conquered nearly every other city-state of Greece. Would you have us bow and scrape before Alexander as well, though dead these hundred years?”

Spiro swung his legs to the floor and banged his cup to the table. “The Macedonians have much to offer. We could all learn from the Great Alexander.” He dropped the pitch of his voice, cool water to quench hot tempers. “Membership in the Achaean League would grant us a military strength we must have if we are to remain free. And one of our own would still lead here, one who could do far more than Glaucus ever could.”

Xenophon chuckled from the other side of the room. “One such as yourself, Spiro?”

He returned the question with a small smile.

“Come now, Spiro, it is no secret that you seek to rule Rhodes as your father rules Kalymnos.”

Muted conversations buzzed around the room at Xenophon’s daring challenge.

“I seek only the wealth and peace of Rhodes.” Spiro skewered Xenophon with a lethal stare. “And you know nothing of my father.”

Hermes lifted a cup. “He is a great leader, your father. A pity the son cares more for wine and women and does not offer the same potential.”

Private whisperings ceased, creating a heavy silence that waited for Spiro’s reaction. But he surveyed the room calmly, then reclined and crossed his arms.

Demetrius was the first to speak, as Spiro knew he would. “You shame yourself with rash words, Hermes. The name of Spiro commands respect in Rhodes and beyond.”

Hermes shrugged but did not argue.

Spiro watched him through narrowed eyes. “We are all aware that we strategoi are not in agreement on the issue of the League. But we are also men of honor, and as such we confine our debate to politics.” He inclined his head toward Hermes. “Your envy has no place here.”

Hermes sputtered, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Envy!”

Spiro smiled. “As you mentioned, I have a discerning palate for quality.”

Xenophon weighed in. “Quality? Like Tessa?”

Laughter around the room lit a slow-burning flame in Spiro’s gut. It was true, he wanted Tessa nearly as much as he wanted to rule Rhodes. The thought of her quickened his pulse.

“Our history is full of great leaders with great women at their side,” he said.

Hermes laughed. “Ah, but I have heard it is your father’s mistress who has commanded his attention and given him a son he favors over you.”

Spiro inhaled to relieve the pressure on his chest. “And I am flattered that you have spent so much time studying my private life, Hermes. What is it our philosophers say? ‘That which consumes us becomes our center.’”

A bare-chested slave entered, toting a small plate of nuts and figs, placed it on a table before Xenophon, then exited with a bow.

“Come.” Xenophon held a fig aloft. “Let us leave off talk of government and turn our minds to other things.”

At that moment a girl somersaulted into the room and jumped to her feet, hands high. The music from the corner picked up tempo, and the girl was followed by two more of her kind, spinning into the room like the wheels of carts. The three linked arms and began an intricate series of steps in the center of the andrôn’s tables.

The eyes and the smiles of every man in the room focused on the barely-clothed young girls. Spiro watched the men, not the gymnasts. He studied Xenophon’s indulgent smile, the slow way he chewed a fig as he leered at the girls. The man could host an impromptu symposium with more extravagance than most men could plan in weeks, but he was a pompous fool.

And then Xenophon’s expression changed. Had one of the girls misstepped? Spiro glanced around the room for the cause of the man’s dismay, but no one else seemed to have taken note of anything. He looked across to Xenophon. A fiery hue painted his face and he swallowed furiously. The girls continued dancing, the men cheering.

Spiro raised himself from the cushions and leaned toward Xenophon. No question now – the man was ill.

Should he summon a slave?

Xenophon jerked to his feet. The flutist ceased abruptly, and the last, discordant note hung in the air. The young gymnasts lowered themselves to the floor. All eyes turned toward their host.

Was it the fig? Was he choking? Several guests jumped to their feet.

Xenophon sucked in air, but his breathing rasped and his eyeballs bulged.

Someone shouted, “By the gods, someone call a physician!”

Behind Spiro, a man slipped out the door in response. The two men on either side of Xenophon eased him down to the couch. His face whitened and flecks of foamy spittle clung to the corners of his mouth. His eyelids fluttered.

And then the spasms began. A faint twitch of the head at first. Then an arm, a leg, and suddenly his entire body convulsed. The couch rocked beneath him. Those on either side held his arms.

“Where is the physician?”

“What can be done?”

Everyone spoke at once. They diagnosed, they dispensed advice, they backed away and drew close.

“Poison!”

The word issued from somewhere within the room, and the eyes of all widened with confirmation.

Spiro’s chest tightened, and he grabbed his wine cup and peered into its contents. Pushed fearful fingers through his plate of olives and grapes. Had they all been poisoned? His stomach roiled in protest.

Someone knocked Xenophon’s plate of figs to the floor. Another attempted to pour wine down his throat, as if it would ward off the poison’s evil effects.

Behind Spiro, a man moved to flee, but Hermes prevented his exit. “No one leaves this room until it is known what has happened.”

Glances returned to Xenophon. Another convulsion gripped him. A moment later his body stiffened as though a sculpted figure instead of living man. His head jerked toward Spiro, eyes fixed upon him.

Spiro held the stony, unblinking stare for several moments, and then Xenophon’s body sagged. His head dropped to his shoulder, and his tongue lolled from his mouth like a sleeping dog’s.

The man was quite dead.

 

Chapter 3

They were held there, every guest, and questioned by city officials. Had anyone been seen tampering with Xenophon’s figs? Which slave had brought them? Did anyone have reason to see harm come to Xenophon?

Spiro laughed at that question. At least five men in the room vehemently disagreed with Xenophon’s politics. Who among them did not have a reason to see harm come to the man? The question should have been, who had the stomach to do it?

When they had all been sufficiently interrogated and allowed to leave, Spiro headed down toward the docks. The memory of Xenophon’s final, glassy stare held him transfixed. It was as though Spiro’s hatred had distilled into a poison and found its way in Xenophon’s body. The surge of power intoxicated him, regardless of the fact that he had done nothing to the figs.

But what did it matter who had murdered Xenophon? His death meant change for Rhodes. A tremor of anticipation ran along Spiro’s spine. Along with Glaucus and Xenophon, only one other strategos, Hermes, stood in clear opposition to the Achaean League. Three others stood with Spiro in support.  Four were yet to be swayed. With Xenophon gone, a power void had been created, awaiting the first man to step into it.

He slowed at the quay near the statue of Helios and watched the men hauling Egyptian grain onto a barge. Such a simple task. And yet the island’s blessed position made it central to nearly all Greek trade and brought riches to its people, washed in on every high tide.

Rhodes was greater even than Kalymnos, his father’s island.

And he could be greater than his father.

His mind played with the thought and his fingers curled to fists at his sides. Xenophon was dead, and somehow Glaucus would have to be managed. And the others, the others would have to be convinced. But he had little time. The Assembly meeting in one week would decide his fate.

The chill breeze off the sea wrapped his robe against his legs and his thoughts hardened with the cold.

He had spent too many years debating, flattering, cajoling.

Did he have the resolve to seize the city for himself?

* * *

A half-mile away, thirty-two dockworkers labored beside the dark sea, hauling sacks of grain from dock to barge.

Thirty-two workers, all but one a slave.

Nikos paused in his trek from the mountain of grain on the quay, a large sack resting in well-muscled arms. Arms once accustomed to this very labor, arms that remembered the former days as easily as Nikos did.

A grizzled old man bumped against him, then shoved an elbow into his gut. “Stand about while we work, will you?”

He turned to the man, searched the scratchy beard and greasy hair for what might remain of the old slave’s humanity. The unwashed stench of sweat lay heavy on the old man. Is this what Nikos would have looked like in a few score years, had his father not acknowledged and rescued him?

Behind him, a jab in the back. “Get to work, man!”

Nikos continued to the barge that dipped and bucked at the water’s edge, flung his sack in line with others, and returned to the pile. The dock master’s stick found the legs of another slave.

Nikos could find a better use for that stick. He laughed to himself and looked to the sun, dropping toward the sea. Another hour, at most.

His masquerade as a work-for-hire free man at the agora had served him well. He had caught the attention of his target and been offered a position in his home. Nikos was to report tonight, after his shift at the docks.

A voice at his shoulder pierced his thoughts. “What’s your name?”

Nikos turned from the grain and took in the man dressed in a short tunic, the dark harbor behind him, the water lapping at the stone wall’s edge. A few hundred yards distant, the flames that circled the base of the mighty Helios drew his eyes. Torches illuminated the statue’s base and the bare feet and legs that rose from it. Its body and head disappeared into the darkness, as though Helios communed with the gods of the night sky.

Another poke in his stomach, this time with the end of that stick. “I said, what’s your name, water rat?”

Caution told him to remain unknown. He shrugged.

The man before him, younger than him by ten years, sneered. “Well, No-Name, either start carrying grain or find yourself in the sea. We’ve no use for pretty men standing about.”

To avoid another jab from the stick, Nikos lurched forward with the others to pick up sacks and tote them to the barge. Out in the harbor a ship rested at anchor, waiting for the load of grain.

Across the quay, the dock master strolled along the harbor’s edge, swinging his stick, then stopped to engage in conversation with an older, well-dressed man. An angry scar like a crescent moon etched the older man’s cheek.

Nikos frowned and studied that scar. Where had he seen the man?

Head down, he fell into line with the shoulder-borne sack of grain block concealing his face. Everything depended on his not being identified. His careful plan to enter the inner circle of Rhodian politics and gain valued information would come to nothing were he recognized.

He leaned one careful eye past the sack of grain. The younger dockmaster shook his head, then extended a hand around the dock, as if inviting the older man into his domain.

Should Nikos disappear? But the two parted before he had a chance. The well-dressed man faded into the darkness, moving toward the other end of the dock, and the dock master wandered in Nikos’s direction.

“You! What did you say your name was?”

Nikos hesitated, then kept moving, head down. “Stephanos.”

The man tilted his head and chewed his lip. “Have you gotten yourself in some trouble?”

Nikos shook his head.

“Because the law is looking for a fine-looking free man like you. He seems very eager to find him. A murderer, perhaps? A thief?”

Nikos dropped the sack and hefted a crate to rest on his shoulder.

The dock master stepped in front of him. “I should think there would be a reward for finding a man so hotly pursued.”

Should he continue the charade, risk being identified and failing in the task his father had set before him? If he ran, he would surely be chased.

 A shout and a crash arose from the end of the slave-line behind him. The dockmaster’s attention shot to the end of the dock.

In its frantic rush to accept and disgorge as much trade as possible, Rhodes had employed pulley systems to lift the heaviest items, treasures such as Athenian marble and ship-building timber from the wooded hills of Thrace. One of these pulleys had failed, releasing a cache of logs to the dock below.

A scream sliced the night air. Nikos glanced at the dockmaster, then ran toward the hair-raising shriek.

Nikos pushed through the huddle of workers, instinct erasing all thoughts of exposure. A single slave had fallen victim to the torrent of heavy timber. He lay on the quay, his lower leg twisted in a perverse angle.

In the days before Nikos had been lifted from the life of these men and placed within the wealth of his father’s favor, he had been more than a dockworker. He had been a champion of the working conditions of slaves. In his years of exposure to injuries suffered, Nikos had gained a working knowledge of and a fiery passion for the healing arts.

“Let me see the leg.” The authority in his voice created a breach in the crowd.

The man moaned from the ground, his face contorted in pain.

The old man who had elbowed him earlier! A boy knelt at his shoulder, holding the injured man’s head in his hand.

Nikos ran a gentle hand down the leg, whispering comfort. The poor man had suffered a nasty break, there was no doubt. He would not work the docks again. But with proper treatment, he might live out his days as a household slave.

“The leg must be set.” Nikos spoke to no one in particular. “Fetch a narrow plank and tear some clean rags.”

He looked over his shoulder. Through a gap in the crowd, he spotted the well-dressed man with the scar emerging from the darkness, his eyes darting about like a hound on a scent.

Perhaps it was the heightened emotion of crisis, but recognition flashed. The man was an enemy. More precisely, the right-hand man of his father’s chief adversary.

Nikos muttered a curse under his breath and jerked his head downward, chest pounding. The accident drew unwanted attention.

He reached a hand beneath his tunic, to a pouch belted at his waist. He drew out two drachmas and pressed them into the palm of the young slave holding the old man’s head.

The boy raised incredulous eyes to Nikos.

He bent to whisper to the boy. “Use this to pay the physician. Be certain the leg is set and allowed to heal. He will walk again.” He patted the old man’s arm. “Courage.”

He could do no more. Not if he wished to continue here in Rhodes. Desperation, a bitter taste in his throat, pushed him onward.

Nikos fled into the night, away from the harbor and its guardian statue, away from his father’s enemy.

He would be hunted. But by the time he was found, he must be well-entrenched in the home and life of the man who was the key to his success.

Glaucus of Rhodes.

* * *

Tessa watched Simeon enter the courtyard, saw the concern on his face. She observed him looking toward Glaucus at her feet, perceived that he crossed the courtyard in haste and kneeled beside his master. All this she saw from a vague and hazy place within her mind, oddly detached. A place that had no words to answer as Simeon questioned.

“Oh, Tessa, what has happened?”

The kneeling servant reached a tentative hand in the direction of the tile protruding from Glaucus’s forehead, then withdrew his hand, unable, or perhaps unwilling to remove it. He lifted his head to study her face. “I heard shouting. I came to be certain you – that all was well.”

“He is dead.” Tessa inhaled and looked away.

“Yes.”

Simeon’s voice held a certain sadness. Surprising that the servant held any amount of affection for his master.

He stood and turned to her, nodding. “He pushed you too far, Tessa. This was foreseeable. A woman such as yourself, forced to submit to him…”

Tessa did not at first grasp his meaning. Then realization came. She lifted a weak hand toward Glaucus. “Do you think that I did this?”

Simeon gripped her arm. “I do not blame you, Tessa. But we must think now. We must think about how to best protect you!”

She shook her head. “The tile. The column.” She pointed upward. “It came from the roof.”

“Tessa! It makes little difference now. You must listen!” Simeon led her a few paces from the body. “All who attended the symposium tonight heard your imprudent words. All have seen the way he demeans you, in spite of the respect you command in this city. No one will doubt that his death was by your hand.”

Tessa could focus only on fragments of Simeon’s words. Such a strange feeling. “What will happen to me?”

Simeon glanced at Glaucus. “If you are found guilty of murder, you will be executed.”

“But I am not guilty.”

“And if you are found innocent, you will be passed to the next patron who has paid your hetaera price.”

“I will run.” She shrugged a heavy shoulder. “Disappear.”

Simeon sighed, the impatient sound of a parent with a child. “You are the most well-known hetaera on the island, Tessa. Where could you go that you would not be recognized? Who would not return you to Servia for the price of the reward?” He glanced at the body. “Stay here a moment.”

Simeon disappeared, and sparks of panic surged to Tessa’s fingertips. Even if she could make people believe, could escape execution, who knew what her next patron might be like?

Simeon returned a moment later, a dark swath of fabric in his hands. He flicked his wrists to snap the fabric taut in the air, then let it float to the ground where it covered Glaucus’s bulk. Tessa breathed again, began to think.

“I must know who will own me next, Simeon.”

The Jewish man nodded. “I will pray that it is a better man, for your sake.”

Tessa wrapped her arms around her waist. “Tell no one, Simeon. Promise me that you’ll tell no one until I return!”

Simeon crossed his arms. “We cannot hide him for long, Tessa. He will be missed as soon as the day is new.”

She looked over the fabric-draped body.  She had made a vow to Helios, to offer herself before sunrise. But perhaps the god had heard her cry and answered with a different sort of freedom, one she had not dared to dream.

She was tasting it now, this hint of freedom. And once tasted, it could not be relinquished. She rubbed slick palms against her robe. Her mouth had gone dry as parchment, but her strength was returning, like a piece of cast-off wood drifting back on the tide.

“Help me drag him out of sight for now, Simeon.”

The older man frowned.

She took in the dark courtyard, with all its shadow. “There.” She pointed. “Behind the gardener’s tools and pots. He will not be easily seen.”

They accomplished the heavy task in a few minutes, and left the covered body half-hidden in the corner, under the colonnade.

Tessa inhaled a deep breath, ran her hands through her hair, and nodded to Simeon. Mynah sang a single clear note, like the starting note of a stadium race. One backward glance, then Tessa fled through the inner hall, onto the portico, and into the Rhodian night, her steps and her heart pounding a rhythm that whispered of hope.

She must learn who was to own her next. Only then could she decide. Only then could she know where her freedom would be found – in pursuing life or in embracing death.

* * *

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© Copyright Tracy L. Higley