Chapter 39: The Mission

Paul knew the kinds of places she was likely to frequent—the seediest taverns, the sort of dark hell-holes in which the poorest laborers could afford to get roaring drunk. He found one that night and sat on a stool in the corner, nursing the cup of foul wine they insisted he buy. He had to water it repeatedly before he could choke down a few mouthfuls.

He sat there until very late, watching the rough crowd come and go, nauseated by the wine and the profane shouts and the violent, drunken brawling. He saw a dozen women enter and cozy up to likely marks; saw them leave, trailing in their wake some dirty, stumbling lout.

Stauria was not among them.

He went back the next night, and the next. He’d almost given up—thinking he’d have to find another tavern tomorrow, some place even more squalid and vile—when he saw her walk in and make a practiced survey of the crowd. Paul tipped his stool further into the corner, hiding his face in the shadows so he could watch her unseen.

She was drunk. Had been for days, he guessed. Her hair was a tangled mess, and her tunic—hitched up in her belt to display her legs—looked like it had seen hard duty. He watched her eyes settle on a table of men who were obviously deep in their cups. She made her way towards the group, weaving and unsteady, and placed her hands on their shoulders. She hiked up one leg, setting her foot on the edge of a stool, striking a pose that might once have been seductive. He could see her lips move, though he could not hear what she said above the din. The men turned towards her as she spoke. He could see the brief flicker of interest in their eyes, until they noticed the pocks on her cheeks and the wasted, withered look of her thighs and breasts. Then he heard their laughter roll across the room, and saw one of them push her away with a curse.

She stumbled back and, for a brief instant, Paul saw anger rise in her face. But she controlled it and returned to the group with a smile. She whispered into one man’s ear, but he shook her off roughly. She moved to another, but he raised his fist at her until she backed off.

She stood against the wall, fighting back tears and looking desperately for other possibilities, when Paul, his face still in shadow, beckoned her with a finger. She smiled, stuck out her chest, and tripped her way towards him.

“Wan some c’mpney?” she slurred.

Paul leaned forward and pulled up another stool. “I certainly do.”

“You!” she started. She was not too drunk to remember who he was and that she’d stolen from his friends.

“Yes, me,” he said, taking her wrist and forcing her to sit down.

“Loose me,” she pulled at his grip. “I doan wanna talk t’you.”

He kept his hold on her wrist. “It would appear, Stauria,” he said calmly, “that no one else wants to talk to you.”

She shot him an angry look. “Iz early yet!”

“No it’s not, Stauria.” He shook his head. “It’s late. Almost too late.”

“Loose me,” she said again, pulling at his fingers. “Got work ta do.”

“I’ll hire you for the night,” he offered.

He saw the glimmer of interest. She stopped struggling and went to work. “Whad’ll ya pay me, huh? How d’ya like it?” She grinned lewdly, throwing out the questions like a challenge, daring him to name a fee and state a preference. “I thawt ya mi’ be a dirty ol’ man all ‘long.” The smile broadened in a kind of triumph. “Yer all th’ same.”

He looked at her for a long span, feeling a sadness he usually reserved for himself, for the time when he, too, had kicked against the goad. We are all so broken, he thought. He found himself hoping she was too drunk to remember this conversation. She would have a hard time forgiving herself if she remembered too much.

He remembered too much.

“I want you to come with me and do anything I ask for the next two days.”

Her eyes widened. “Two days? Ya wan me fer two whole days then? That’ll cost ya pleny, ol’ man.” She leaned closer and breathed her fetid breath in his face. “But I’ll ma’e it worth yer while. You bet!” She gave him a sad imitation of a leering smile.

“As to the fee, I wonder if this might cover our costs?” He reached down with his free hand and pulled the lamp stand into the light.

He might have poured a bucket of cold water on her, she sobered so fast. She stared at the lamp stand for a long moment and then wrenched her wrist from his grasp. “Where did you get that?” she whispered.

“From a merchant in the North Market. The merchant you sold it to. Cost me eight denarii.”

She gave a wry smile. “I got three.”

“I figured as much. Here.” He handed the lamp stand to her. “It’s yours, if you’ll come with me.”

She held it in her lap, staring at it. “Where?” But there was no challenge in the question. All the fight had gone out of her.

“To get a good night’s sleep. To have a decent meal and visit the baths. To buy a new tunic.”

“And then?”

“Then we’ll go see Prisca. You’ll give that back to her,” he pointed to the lamp stand. “You’ll tell her you’re sorry, that you won’t ever steal from her again. You’ll ask her to be your friend.”

“What if I’m not agreeable to that?” She stared at him with lost eyes.

“Stauria,” he leaned in close to her. “You don’t have any other options. It’s this or them.” He nodded towards the table of men who’d laughed her away.

She studied them for a moment, then shuddered. Even with the wine, she knew she didn’t want that. She turned back to Paul. “Why are you doin’ this?”

He shrugged. “Because, a long time ago, someone gave me the chance I’m offering you.”

She stared a little longer at the lamp stand in her hands. “Why would Prisca give me a hearing, after what I done to her? Why would she bother to be my friend?”

“She said to tell you that you are worth more to her than any lamp stand.”

Stauria’s eyes narrowed. She shook her head. “I ain’t, you know.”

Paul smiled. “You let us be the judge of that.”


II

He took Stauria over to Prisca’s apartment the next day and watched the two women make peace—Stauria stepping forward timidly to hold out the lamp stand to Prisca, Prisca gathering her in her arms and smiling at Paul with shining eyes over Stauria’s shoulder. He left them there and walked back to Gaius’s house. They needed some time to get the measure of each other. He needed some time to meet questioners from the agora and the synagogue who’d already started to trickle by the house.

He didn’t see the two women for a few days. He was busy. And, he presumed, they had about half a world to cross before they found common ground. Paul was in no hurry. In this, at least, he could wait without chaffing.


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