Chapter 16: The Mission

When news of the boy’s capture reached Stephanas, he was haggling down the price of a parchment in the agora. He hurried home. Entering his house, he glanced the boy’s way long enough to see the same old anger, the same private war raging inside him.

And something else.

He’s afraid. He’s wondering if he’s gone too far this time. I wonder that too.

He moved to his study and closed the door, breathing in the smells of parchments and candle wax and glue. It calmed him, being in this room. He could think in here. He straightened a scroll and checked the cork in an ink bottle. He sat for a few moments, staring at the wax tablets piled on his desk. Staring, but not seeing. The tablets made a convenient focus for his eyes, but his mind was on the young man waiting in the courtyard.

He knew the boy resented him for the death of his father. And he knew it must be difficult for the son to remain in this house where the memories of his father crowded so thick. The boy could see him, smell him, at every turn. So could Stephanas.

Oh, Orantes, where are you when I need you?

In a few moments, they’d bring the boy in. And Stephanas would have to decide what to do with him. The standard treatment for runaway slaves, of course, was execution—the nastier and noisier the better for the instruction and warning of the other slaves of the household.

But Stephanas would never treat one of his own like that—especially this one. A whipping was bad enough. In the very courtyard where Fortunatus sat, he’d once ordered a thieving slave whipped. It cost him days of diarrhea and no appetite.

But to take a life—even a slave’s life—was another matter.

I could sell the boy. And for a few moments Stephanas thought about doing just that. But he realized another master would find the young man just as difficult to handle. And he was quite certain Fortunatus would find another master less forgiving. To spare the boy’s life now only to put him in the hands of a master who might take his life later was a cruelty.

He shook his head, dreading the confrontation to come, at a loss for what to do. He thought again of the boy’s father, the smiling figure who filled so many of his own memories, the face he could conjure in his mind’s eye more easily than his own father’s. And he felt, as always, the debt of obligation owed to the old slave, the weight of gratitude, the regret that a man so wise and dutiful should father a son so lacking in those attributes.

The household steward knocked at the door. “Sir. You ready?”

“Yes, Achaicus. Bring him in.”

“Yes, Sir. Just take a moment.” The old steward walked out to the courtyard and dismissed the soldiers who stood guard over the boy. When he turned to look at Fortunatus, his eyes were not kind.

“Come along,” he ordered and led the boy to the study. Placing his hand on the door-latch, the old man whispered, “Ya stupid ox. The cross is too good for the likes of you. He won’t do it, of course. He can’t.” He locked hard eyes on the boy. “But I would, if it was up to me.”

Somehow, in the old man’s malice, Fortunatus found strength. “It’s not up to you though, is it, Achaicus?” He pointed at the door. “It’s up to him. And, as you said, he won’t do anything drastic—for my father’s sake.”

Achaicus shook his head angrily. “One day, you’ll push too far. And I wouldn’t be so smug, ya young fool. He’ll not nail you up. But, father or no, he’ll have to teach ya not to run away.”

The boy knew that was true enough. It wouldn’t be the cross today. But a lashing was no laughing matter. There would be a price for his brief flirt with freedom, something he would have to pay in the coin of pain. He felt the fear again.

“That’s better,” Achaicus nodded in satisfaction. He opened the door.

Stephanas looked up as the boy and the steward entered, but said nothing for a moment. He let the silence settle around the three of them as he took in the filth of the boy’s clothes and hair, the bruise on his temple, the eyes that would not meet his.

Watching the boy, Stephanas asked, “How long has he been gone?”

“Eight days, Sir.”

“And where did they arrest him?”

“Right here in Corinth, Sir. Hangin’ about the meat market, they said. The soldiers who caught him thought he looked shifty, like he was about to steal a chicken.”

“I was hungry,” the boy spoke up.

Achaicus turned on him. “You’ll hold yer tongue ’til yer spoken to, pup! The master don’t need yer whining and excuses.”

The room grew quiet again. Stephanas could see the boy was scared. He looked closely for any sign of remorse, for some indication that the boy was ashamed of himself. But all he saw was the fear. He shook his head.

“Did you steal anything when you left?” he asked the boy.

The boy looked up at that and answered defiantly, “Nothing. Not a thing from this house.”

Stephanas queried Achaicus with his eyes. Reluctantly, the steward agreed. “That’s true enough, Sir. Just his clothes. And a loaf of bread from the kitchen.”

Stephanas turned back to the boy. “Still, that was my bread. Those are my clothes. And when you run away, you steal yourself—my p-p-property. Sounds like theft to me.”

He watched the fear replaced by anger in the eyes of the boy—the old, familiar smolder that seemed to burn so hot and constant. For a moment, Stephanas thought he might say something, in self-defense or objection, and watched with interest as the boy struggled to contain the urge. When he set his mouth and lowered his eyes, Stephanas almost smiled.

“So we have … uhmm, let’s see … we have desertion and theft. Any other charges to add, Achaicus?”

The steward scratched his chin. “Many, Sir. He’s piled up quite a list. Slackin’ on the job. Talkin’ back. Misuse of property …”

Stephanas raised an eyebrow.

“He sneaks scrolls from yer library, Sir, and burns candles to read by in the night.”

Stephanas felt his heart warm and he had to look away from the boy. He spoke softly. “Your father’s influence no doubt. He taught me to love books as well.”

The boy looked up, and for an instant there was common ground, a shared interest. But it passed quickly. The smolder returned. And the impassive, stolid bearing.

Stephanas felt a wash of frustration. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temples, reminding himself that the boy’s father, if not the boy, was worthy of his best efforts.

“Very well. For the next three months, you will muck out the latrine, scrub the floors, and wash down the kitchen. You’ll clean the stables.” He glanced at his steward. “All the dirty jobs, Achaicus.” Back to the boy. “In your spare time, you will rebuild the rock wall at the back of the orchard. And you will build it right.” He gave the boy his sternest look. “In the evenings, you’re confined to quarters. Bread and water. And no books. When the time’s up, we’ll talk again. If you want me to p-p-place you in another household, I’ll make the arrangements. If you want to stay, I’ll insist on a different attitude. Do we understand each other?”

The boy nodded, sullen.

“He is to be watched at all times, Achaicus. If he runs away again, I’ll hold you to account. Dismissed then.”

“But, Sir!” Achaicus objected. That’s it?

“Dismissed, I said.” Stephanas waved the two of them away, worn out by the exchange.

He sat musing for some time, thinking about the boy and what was to be done with him. So eager for freedom. So ill-equipped for survival outside the household. Only eight days gone and he was lurking about the market, famished and trying to steal. He had few manual skills and his education (not to mention his age) was insufficient to make him a good tutor. The boy had no idea how difficult life could be beyond the womb of Stephanas’s home and patronage.

The boy’s father would want him freed. But not before he learned a trade or established a profession … not until he was mature enough to maintain a relationship with Stephanas and accept his help.

Stephanas was eager to follow the father’s wishes. But to free the boy now was to condemn him to a life of brutish labor or the worse fate to which his young age and pretty face would destine him.

Don’t run away from me, boy, he thought fiercely. You’re only running towards something that will destroy you in the end.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.