A Bad Afternoon and Pay Back Time
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Chapter One: A Bad Afternoon
"No!" screamed Amaris, blocking the staircase with outstretched arms. "That's mine! Leave it, you thief!"
The woman who had just resigned her position laughed and hugged her bundle more tightly. "Move, child, before I knock you down to the courtyard. Fall like that, and you might join your mother quick."
Outmatched in both size and strength, Amaris ran forward and leapt, making herself a human spear. Her head met the ex-nursemaid's stomach, and they both collapsed on the wooden floor, Amaris on top. She dug under the woman's arms for the bundle of cloth.
"I made it. It's worth hundreds. I have to sell it today. Give. It. Back."
With the last word, she fell off her enemy, shoved against the clay wall.
"Hundreds, you say," grinned the former servant, standing and adjusting her chiton. "Then I daresay it'll make up them back wages as your father owes me."
Amaris readied to hurl herself again, but the woman pushed her back down and descended the stairs. She stopped halfway and turned around. "So I thank you, little Lady Amaris." A mocking bow. "If this brings the hundreds you promise, I won't have to sue you in court." She spun back around, muttering, "Like to ruin my clothes and all. A fool just like her father."
Amaris trembled at the top of the stairs. "My father is not a fool," she shouted. "You get of a she-goat! Whelp of a wild donkey!"
The ex-nursemaid cavorted through the courtyard and out into the street, shaking her head and carping under her breath.
By the time Amaris could steady herself to run to the gate, she saw no sign of the woman.
She stepped back inside, closing the gate, clenching and unclenching her fists. Angry tears
burned her face. She smeared them away with her sleeve.
She marched into the kitchen, where Andra and an elderly servant were unpacking baskets.
"No lunch?" she demanded.
Andra paused and glared up at her older sister, hands on hips. "We just got in from Market. I'm hot. I'm tired. You could help us, you know." Dust coated her chiton.
The elderly woman cackled and shooed Amaris away. "We don't want that," she told Andra. "Poison the whole household, she would."
Andra giggled, but Amaris stamped her foot.
"That's not funny!"
"It is the way she says it." Andra returned to sorting herbs. "And your cooking . . ." She stuck two fingers in her mouth and made gagging sounds.
Amaris wanted to defend herself. She wanted to protest that it wasn't her fault. Instead, she clamped her teeth together and spun back into the courtyard. Too furious to stand still, she headed out the back gate, to the small stable. A few scrawny chickens picked their way forlornly about the yard, a half-cleaned patch of straw and dirt. They ran when she neared them.
Father's stallion, busy with whatever had been thrown in his manger, ignored her. She paced to her mare's stall . . . Empty, of course. She had forgotten.
Again she rubbed her sleeve across her eyes, muddying the cloth and smearing the mess her face had become. As she stepped back into the sun, the "baby" stumbled into the yard.
Little Alicia looked worse than her big sister. She had fallen several times, and mud and blood coated her feet and her formerly bright clothes. Her dark, tangled hair stuck out in all directions. Tears, grime, and mucus streamed down her face.
"Where's Nurse?" she whined.
"Nurse is gone," Amaris declared.
"Make her come back," Alicia insisted.
Amaris forced herself to breathe slowly and speak gently. "Nurse has left us, darling. But come now. You and I can play."
Her arms formed an embrace, but Alicia pushed her away. "Ooh, no. You're all dirty. Yucky."
Amaris made herself smile. "We're both dirty, sweetheart. It's all right."
When Alicia continued to back away, Amaris followed her into the courtyard. She looked frantically for a distraction. In a shadow, half hidden under a bucket, she spied a toy horse.
"Look, Alicia." She held out the leather figure. "It's Horsy. Don't you want to play
Alicia smacked the toy to the ground. "I want Mama," she whimpered.
"So do I, honey. So do we all." Amaris tried again to hold her, but Alicia squirmed away, her face turning a blotchy red.
"I want Mama!" she repeated.
Amaris sighed, groping for options.
"Let's you and me go upstairs and bathe, since we're both so dirty."
Alicia reverted to baby talk. "Don't wanna bathe."
"Won't it be fun?" She grabbed Alicia's hand, and pulled her toward the stairs. "We'll splash water and rub each other with oil and--"
"No!" Alicia yanked her hand away. "I don't want you. I want Nurse."
"I told you, Nurse has left us."
Amaris sighed. How could she explain concepts like money and debt to a four-year-old?
"She just did. She's gone. But you can play with me. I'll sing for you and read to you and carry you on my back. Would you like to ride on my back?"
Alicia considered the last offer and slowly nodded. But when Amaris knelt and reached for her, she changed her mind.
"I don't want to play with you. I want Mama!"
Amaris snapped. "Shut up! Just shut up! I want Mama, too! But she's gone, and she won't come back. She'll never come back." She shook Alicia. "Shut up! Do you hear?"
When Alicia broke into more tears, Amaris slapped her.
The few remaining servants came running.
Amaris stared at her hand, a strange, burning appendage at the end of her arm.
Before she could apologize, the crone from the kitchen had bundled Alicia into her lap, and someone had given her a sweet. The old groom, reeking of stable fumes, gripped Amaris and propelled her to the staircase.
"To the women's quarters with you! And don't let any of us find you out of there before sunset." He added, growling, "When your father hears about this . . ."
Fearing more servant violence, Amaris ran up the stairs.
As no one followed, however, she did not go where she had been sent. First, she went into the bathing room, where she plunged her hands into a chilly basin. In vain she tried to purify the hand that hurt Alicia.
In their shining niches above, miniatures of Orissaren's major gods scowled down at her.
She closed her eyes against them. For good measure, she scrubbed her face.
The cool water calmed her temper.
At last she left the bath to enter the room she shared with her sisters. Unclasping the golden pins from her shoulders, she threw her soiled cloth into a large, overflowing basket. She
selected a set of old but clean material and dressed anew. Several times the curved pins caught in her hair rather than the fabric, but at last she managed a presentable arrangement. For good measure, she added a corded belt. Then she raised the heavy basket to her head and carried it to the stairs.
Before she could go further, however, the old groom spotted her. He hissed and pointed his finger. She dropped the basket, letting its contents spill, and ran back to the girls' room.
Calmed but still restless, she sat on the edge of her kline and counted to one thousand.
Sure that no one would notice her now, she slipped out of the girl's quarters and into her brother's room.
Unlike the gynaeconitis, this room contained little besides its furniture. No musical instruments, no looms or writing stands, no hangings or carpets. Axerian did not keep a basket for his dirty clothes. He washed them at the barracks when he washed the soldiers' stuff. His kline, his chest, and a small stool and tripod for the rare visitor. He planned to join the army as soon as his age permitted it, and his room already reflected the impersonality of a soldier.
Amaris ignored the emptiness and focused on what this room had that her own lacked: the window. She pulled the stool up to the wooden frame and leaned out as far as she dared.
She gazed not at the yard, nor at the neighboring houses. She focused on Oris, the deep, dark Sea, the magical source of both salt-water and freshwater fish. Looking toward the place where the sun would set, she breathed deeply of the salt air, drank in the birds' cries, the fishermen's shouts, the plash of boats and nets.
Much of it she heard only in imagination, in memory. But this small, rundown house, this last remaining property of her family, did lie near enough the shore that she truly heard and smelt much of Oris. A bit of sea-breeze even now cooled her face. What lay beyond? she wondered. Far to her left, where the Sea grew darker, beyond the mountains that rimmed her world, what did the sailors see? If she sailed far enough, would she really find the ruins of Troy, whose sad story she loved to hear sung? If she continued then, would she reach the Great Sea, the center of the world? And then? What then?
As she looked out, a huge ship approached the City. Not a fishing boat or a merchant's vessel. This red and black longboat with gilded prow made her sit forward on her seat. She frowned, studying it. A fighting ship. Her pulse quickened. What army came to threaten
Orissaren? To challenge her raiding boats?
The tetreres turned and the sun caught the emblem on its flat sail: the golden eagle of Rome, blinding in its brilliance. Amaris shivered and slid to the floor. The Romans, of whom she heard so much rumor, so many whispers. The Romans, conquerors of all lands around the Great Sea. The Romans, hard, and cruel, and ever greedy for more. Why did Rome come to Orissaren?
Amaris closed her eyes and leaned against the cool wall. She did not want Romans to see her, not even from this distance. Keeping below the level of the window, she pushed her brother's stool to its place and crawled out of the room.
In her own room, she turned to her loom. At first, her anger resurfaced. She looked at the empty frame and remembered her stolen handiwork. Mechanically, she threaded warp lengths through the cloth beam and tied the clay weights to their bottoms. In the familiarity of her tasks, she relaxed, forgetting. She selected yarns for her weft, and soon the shuttle was whizzing through the warp. The weights clacked together in their usual rhythm. She pictured Alicia and her dear, dirty face. She wove and wept.
Chapter Two: Pay-Back Time
Dinner was delicious, but Amaris had no appetite. Father, too, picked at his food, and
when he looked up, he scowled. At first Amaris thought he scowled at her. But he spoke less than usual, smiled barely at all, and when she studied him, surreptitiously, she saw utter
Always she had envied men. To spend one's day at the Forum, away from the noises and odors and petty irritations of the household, seemed to her a lovely freedom. To discuss poetry and philosophy and important affairs. To plan the welfare of the entire city. How she longed to
add her voice to such conversations.
But tonight, for the first time, she wondered about the burdens of responsibility. She noticed the shadows under Father's dark eyes, the increasing white hair at his temples, the worn
patches in his himation. Normally he wore only his chiton at table. But despite the mild evening, he seemed cold, often pulling the robe closer. Stubble roughened his chin and gave ugly shadows to his face.
She looked down at her plate, ashamed that her actions today would add to his fatigue. Her new weaving, she decided, would not go to the Market. She would make it a gift for Father.
When she looked beyond the table, the gods around the andronitis also frowned. Amaris would get no sympathy from them. Sometimes she wanted to pull down and melt the lot of them. If they would not help the family, must they continue to injure them?
Andra teased Axerian about his new haircut. Didn't he remember that the army would not admit him for two more years? One year, Axerian insisted. Not even one. He knew "people," he had "friends."
Normally, Amaris would have joined the banter. Tonight, she forced herself to eat, lest she seem ungrateful. She could not keep from watching Father. His exhaustion worried her.
After dinner, after all had been cleared away, Father pulled Alicia onto his kline. A nymph child or young goddess she looked now, her hair cleaned and braided, her face clean and sweet, a bright chiton of green and gold. He held her as though she might easily break or fly away. She snuggled against him.
"So, my little one," he murmured as usual, "tell me about your day."
"Amaris slapped me," she reported.
The others glanced at Amaris, but Father kept his eyes on Alicia. "I know about that," he said. "But what did you do today?"
Alicia sucked her fingers and did not answer.
"I don't know how she spent the morning. I went to market, and Amaris finished her new weaving," stated Andra. "But Alicia drove away her nurse and then spent the afternoon being a nuisance to everyone. We barely got dinner ready in time."
Amaris smiled her gratitude, surprised at Andra's defense.
Father shook his head sadly. "Everyone wants to report on everyone else tonight," he chided. "Has no one any good or happy news?"
"I got a boo-boo," announced Alicia, showing the small bruise on her elbow.
"I-I met two of Arethia's maids in the Market," said Andra. "They said she was sick, but
. . . they thought it might be a good sickness. I don't understand what they meant."
"Ah." Father smiled. "Your sister may be with child."
"Oh!" said Andra and Amaris together.
"It is too soon to be certain. I, ah, saw her husband today."
"Father?" asked Andra. "May I go and help her? I know how to cook the foods she likes. I think she might be able to eat if I were there."
"Her husband does not want our assistance."
"He hates us," declared Axerian, sitting straighter, ready to fight.
"No . . ." Father disagreed gently. "Say rather that he fears us."
"Fears us? Why?" pressed Andra. "What have we done?"
Father sighed so deeply it was almost a groan.
"Nothing, child. But many believe that the gods do not favor us. Arethia's husband is one of those."
Many believe rightly, thought Amaris.
"But he doesn't think-- Do people really believe--?" Andra choked in her indignation.
Father shrugged. "We are not to blame for what fools believe. My son-in-law urged me today that none of us visit until he considers my daughter's health stable." He held up a hand against their protests. "A request which we will honor. He is her husband."
"Gods grant that I never marry such a pig," declared Amaris. Her father's sharp look made her stare at her lap.
"So," he said in a lighter voice, "my girls have had some excitement today, and we have lost another servant. Who, I understand, stole some property on her way out." Amaris glanced up into sympathetic eyes. "And what of the barracks, Axerian? I would guess you found today more demanding than usual?"
"How did you know, Father?" Axerian pulled his chiton tighter, threw his shoulders back. "Annar sends greetings, as usual. But things were very hectic. It seems Rome has sent miletes to investigate--"
His father cut him off. "Yes, I know. But what of your own activities?"
Axerian paused, wary, dark eyes squinting. He seemed to consider what to report in the presence of women. Finally he shrugged. "My hands are raw from cleaning and polishing. Though they paid me a bit more than usual." His reddened fingers counted out eight silver coins on the table.
"A bit?" breathed Andra. "That's a lot!"
Father handed a coin each to Andra and Amaris, then took half of the remainder and pushed the rest back to Axerian. "Well done, my son. You have earned this for yourself."
"Thank you, Father!"
"Want coin," murmured Alicia, half asleep. "Want shiny coin."
"You'd just swallow it and choke yourself," stated Andra. "Silly girl. Come, it's bedtime for you." She reached out, and her father lifted the little one into her arms. Alicia grunted her protest but did not fight.
"Oh, Amaris," said Axerian, pulling several parchment scraps from the folds of his himation. "Two of Annar's friends want letters written for their sweethearts. They paid an advance." He laid five copper coins on top of the parchments.
Their father's hand covered the skins and the money and slid them back across the table to Axerian.
"Not tonight," he stated. "You'll have to manage these yourself, son. I need to speak with Amaris in private."
Brother and sister exchanged puzzled looks, especially when Father called Amaris to join him in the andron, a room off-limits to females.
"But Father," Axerian protested. "She can't--"
"I will decide who can and can't do what in my own house."
"Yes sir. Forgive me, sir."
Father laughed without humor. "Go on to bed, son. You will find tomorrow more hectic than today. Your brother will need your help sorely."
He led Amaris into the room she had never entered.
She moved on tiptoe, not daring to look at him or at the gilded klines she passed. She fixed her gaze on the mosaic floor, wishing she had given more effort to cleaning and pressing her attire. Why hadn't she listened to Andra and allowed old Etta to properly fix her thick, stubborn hair? She wished that she had the courage to adjust it now, to brush the stray strands out of her eyes. What horrible punishment awaited that she should be called into this room?
"Sit, my daughter," said her father, patting a kline. "Are you cold?"
He clapped his hands and a young man, newly hired, ran in and knelt.
"Yes, my Lord Arethius."
Amaris could not remember the boy's name. He couldn't be as old as Axerian.
"My daughter is chilled. Bring fire and a cloak."
The boy gave Amaris his blue-eyed scorn, but he nodded. "Yes, my lord."
Arethius did not speak until the boy had returned and a warm fire crackled in the hearth. He paced the length of the room. Amaris studied her polished toenails.
At last Arethius sat. Amaris knelt on the cold tiles, fearing the men's couches.
"Axerian spoke of Rome," said Arethius.
"Yes, Father." Amaris frowned, both relieved and confused. This was not about Alicia? Her father would speak politics with her?
"Rome has apparently been speaking of us. Not our household, but our City." He lifted the wine glass he had been ignoring and sipped from it. "Some of our, ah, adventurers have seized treasures from ships that Rome wants to protect. So Rome has decided to 'visit' Orissaren." Another sip of wine.
"Rome wants to recover some of what Orissaren has taken." Setting his glass on a table, he stood and resumed his pacing.
"It is unwise to vex the Romans. In order to placate them, therefore, the Council has imposed an emergency tax. And in order to pay the tax, many of my fellows have come to me today, seeking repayment of . . . what they once called gifts."
The quick coldness in his voice drove all warmth from the room.
Suddenly Amaris found herself lifted to a soft kline and enfolded in a thick himation. Her father kissed her forehead and returned to his seat. He emptied his wine glass and called for
more. When his cup had been refilled and the servant left, he continued.
"As I was saying, I discovered today that I have few friends and many creditors." He leaned forward, his head in his hands, as though speaking pained him. When he raised his face
again, the color had left it. Amaris had not thought a face could hold so many shadows. "Most
at least went away happy with the little I could give them."
Again he paused.
Finally, "Xanon also came today. And though I owe him much, Xanon does not want money."
Underneath her warm wrappings, Amaris shivered and closed her eyes. Might Oressa curse that old man! Might the Goddess crush him for his leering eyes and groping fingers! Surely no human had seen what he did to Amaris the night of her mother's burial. She had told no one for shame.
But Oressa saw all. And her father, she often believed, strongly suspected. Could not Xanon recognize Amaris as still a child? He might not care that she hated him, he might even delude himself that she enjoyed what he did, but did he not consider his reputation? He should think of his own children and grandchildren and what they would think and say. And now he actually spoke of his desire? To Arethius?
To Amaris' surprise, a cry escaped her father. She looked up to see him wipe his eyes with the edge of his chiton. When Mama wove that cloth, she had wanted the gilded fish to gleam as though sporting in real water. So skilled was the weaving that Father's tears did not show on the fabric. But even the dim light revealed his reddened eyes, his aged face.
"I sent him away, of course, with the scorn he deserved." Arethius spat into the fire. "But Amaris, child, I fear him. This is not the first time he has spoken to me of . . . the repayment he wishes. I have offered him gold, jewels, service. Today he brought stronger arguments. I do not know how much longer I can defy him. I wish . . ." He stared into her eyes, his hand crushing the end of the chiton. Everyone told her that her dove grey eyes resembled her mother's.
Arethius pulled his gaze away and staggered into the shadows of the andron. Amaris continued to look at his empty chair. Mama had stitched its coral cushion and armrests.
"I wanted to send you as handmaiden to your sister." Father's voice echoed from a dark
corner. "But her husband does not agree. I have spoken to other fathers about a companion for
their daughters. I have pleaded with childless couples." He sighed. "I believe I now find myself with only one solution." He spoke barely above a whisper. "I've thought about this for many weeks, and I have prayed for guidance."
Amaris waited, fear creeping in from the darkness.
"Tomorrow you must rise early, before even your brother. You and I must go to the Temple. There seems only one way that Oressa will protect you."
Amaris swallowed, feeling as though a bone had caught in her throat. "Father . . ." She
couldn't say more. Neither could she stop the tears that spilled from her eyes.
Were these her only choices: Xanon or the Temple? Must she lose, not only her mother
but her entire family? Her life?
"I love you, Amaris." Her father embraced her, his loose clothes falling like water around her. "My dearest daughter . . ." He kissed the top of her head and held her. She listened to the thumping of his heart. "Oressa will protect you. I cannot believe that the gods despise us."
She did not dissent. She did not beg Arethius to change his mind. She managed to blink back her tears as he led her upstairs, to her room. A lone torch illuminated the gynaeconitis, leaving the far walls in gloom.
As soon as Arethius left, her eyes pooled again. Through a watery shimmer, she looked on her sleeping sisters. Sobbing without sound, she packed the few possessions she would carry with her. Still weeping, she slid beneath the blankets of the bed in which she might never sleep again. She could not say goodbye to anyone, could not kiss Alicia in her sleep. If someone woke, she would have to explain. If they begged her to stay, she would not know how to answer.
Father might think otherwise, but she knew, as she fell asleep, still blinking tears, that the
gods had not finished their punishment.
During the night, she dreamed that her mother came to her and sang songs of comfort. The healthy and happy woman led Amaris into a glowing cavern, where they soaked their feet in a pool warm as tears. In the morning, Amaris did not recall her dreams. Dried salt coated her face.
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