Chapter 47: The Mission

Fall blew in with a vengeance, bringing to Corinth an unusual cold snap. It could not last. But the chill in the air was enough to suggest that winter was looming and might be hard. Suddenly, the heat of summer was a distant memory, chased away by frosty mornings and lashing rains. People who, weeks before, had gasped through the streets of the city—sweating and irritable—now moved about bundled against the cold and damp—shivering and irritable.

Late on a frigid afternoon, Achaicus went searching for Paul. He could see thunderclouds building over the Corinthian Gulf, and leaned into the cold, biting gusts pushed before them. He could smell the coming rain.

He found Paul where he expected to find him—in the agora. He was finishing a conversation with a fish-monger, telling stories about John the fisherman. Achaicus stood to the side, not wanting to interrupt, watching.

Paul’s lips were blue, he noticed. His cloak was so worn, it afforded little protection against the cold and wind. And there was so little fat on the man, Achaicus realized, he must feel the cold intensely.

When the fish-monger turned away with a shrug, Achaicus took Paul by the arm and drew him towards a taverna inside the North Stoa. “Ya need some wine to warm you,” he said gruffly. “And I need a bit of yer time.”

Paul followed without objection. Achaicus could feel his trembling.


They sat at the back of the taverna, and Achaicus ordered two cups of mulled wine—hot and spiced with honey. He sat one in front of Paul and gestured for him to drink it, all of it. “When was the last time ya ate?” he asked, as though Paul were a naughty boy who had to be carefully watched. But he did not wait for an answer. Gesturing to the proprietor, he ordered soup—“Somethin’ with meat in it! And bread. And another cup of wine.”

Achaicus wrapped his fingers around the warm cup in front of him. “Old men like us oughta take better care of themselves, Paul,” he chided.

Paul smiled his agreement and seized the bowl of stew when it arrived. He could feel the wine warming his stomach. The trembling subsided. He began to relax.

“Thank you, Achaicus. I didn’t realize how cold it was.”

Achaicus leaned forward. Since he’d begun the rebuke, he might as well finish it. “Ya ain’t no good to us, Paul, if yer down with a fever or dead from simple neglect. Ya ain’t no good to us or yer cause. Now I’m gonna bring you one of the Master’s old cloaks. Something thick enough to turn the wind.” He wagged a finger at Paul. “And, yes, you’ll take it. And, yes, you’ll wear it. Do we have an understandin’?”

Paul grinned weakly. “If you insist, my friend.”

“I am yer friend. And I thank ye fer what you’re doing, Paul. For the Master ’specially. But I’m too old to get in a twitter about you. Ya may be a man of God, but yer still a man. And ya can’t carry water if yer neglectin’ yerself. So—one friend t’another—you’ll eat … you’ll watch the cold … and you’ll get yer rest.”

Paul raised his hands in surrender. “Yes, Doctor. I promise to do better.”

“And I’ll hold ya to it. Now finish yer stew.”

Paul did as he was told, wiping the bowl with a crust of bread at the end. “You said you needed some of my time. I assume you have something on your mind apart from my wardrobe and eating habits?”

Achaicus nodded and then raised his hand for two more cups of wine. “I have a story to tell ya. But it ain’t my story. So I find myself betwixt and between.” He frowned. “The Master trusts me. I’m beholden to keep my mouth shut about the master’s personal goin’s-on. But he has a thorn that torments him, and neither of us can seem to pull it.” A pained look passed over his features.

“The boy,” Paul guessed. “Yes, of course. We’ve spoken about Fortunatus several times.”

“Well, yes, there’d be the boy.” Achaicus glanced away and then exhaled. “As ya seen for yerself, Fortunatus serves with me. Though he ain’t no good at it,” he said bitterly.

“Stephanas seems quite fond of him.”

“Oh, he is. Though it’s like lovin’ a stump. Stupid little ox,” Achaicus hissed. He took a deep breath.

“I take it you’re not as fond of Fortunatus as your master.”

The old man snorted. “I’d like to pinch his head off. I cared once, you know. Orantes was my friend. I felt beholden for his boy. But not no more. He troubles the household and causes too much grief to my master.”

“Have things not improved at all?”

“Some. They’ve reached an understandin’, those two. But it’s a devil’s pact, if yer askin’ me.”

“What do you mean?”

“They steer clear of each other. The boy don’t show disrespect as long as the Master don’t speak to him. And the Master walks around like he’s barefoot on glass, tryin’ not to give offense. That ain’t no way to live under the same roof.”

I see,” Paul said again. “What do you want of me?”

“Talk to him,” Achaicus shrugged and took another sip of wine. “Ya done good by the Master. Do something fer the boy.”

“I’ve already tried.”

“Well, try again.”

Paul studied his cup. “I think something more than pleasant conversation will be required in this case.”

Achaicus leaned forward. “Then be unpleasant. But try.”

Paul smiled. “Actually, I have an idea that might work. I hoped to talk to your master about it soon.”

“Good.” Achaicus took a long pull from his cup and sat back. “And while yer talkin’ to the master about that …” He paused and his face darkened.

Paul waited and then realized something. “You didn’t come here to talk to me about the boy, did you?”

Achaicus looked away. “No.” He paused again and then bumbled his way forward. “Actually … I need to tell ya … that is, ya seem to have a way with the Master. He trusts you.” He stopped again, torn by some internal debate. “This be his story, ya see, and he’ll not be thankin’ me for sharin’ it—even with you. So tread careful with what I tell you.”

Paul smiled. “Like I’m barefoot on glass?” He reached across the table and put his hand on the old steward’s arm. “Perhaps you should just say what you came here for.”

Achaicus nodded and took a deep breath. “There was a woman once … a wife.”

Paul sat back and nodded slowly. “I thought so, though he’s never spoken of her.”

The old servant looked up, pleading. “I can’t tell ya what happened, what went wrong. That’s fer him to say if he wants. I can only tell ya that she hurt him. Bad. He’s ain’t been the same since she left.”

“How so … not the same.”

“There is no laughin’ in him anymore. He spends all his time shut up with them books a’his. He’s given up his friends. And like I told ya before, it’s been years since he’s had folks to dinner.”

“I see. What else?”

If possible, Achaicus looked even more uncomfortable. “I catch him, sometimes, starin’ off into the distance, and I know he’s thinkin’ about her. She’s marked him, somehow. And it’s not just the sadness. He don’t trust himself no more. To judge people right. To know who to trust.”

He looked away for a time. “Has he told ya ’bout Oedipus yet?”

Paul smiled. “The ones we kill and the ones we marry?”

Achaicus nodded. “That’s it. Pretty gloomy stuff, ain’t it. But I reckon he believes it—that he married the thing that’s gonna eat him up.”

“I guess he does believe it. And I can see how that would mark a man … make him doubt himself. Although, he’s been very open with me.”

“That’s why we’re even talking ’bout this. You’ve surprised me, Paul. I ain’t seen him like this since she left.”

“I like your master. He’s a good man.”

“And he likes you.” But then his voice turned brittle. “Don’t hurt him, Paul. I wouldn’t stand fer it. Not again.”

Paul looked up to meet the steward’s eyes. The two men stared at each other for a long while.

“I think Stephanas is blessed to have a friend like you, Achaicus.”

Achaicus shrugged off the compliment. “What I seen in the Master these last few weeks has been the best I’ve seen him in a long time. Yer friendship means something to him. And yer message.” He leaned forward again. “But it don’t matter how much fresh water goes through the pond, if there’s a dead body beneath. The water’s gonna turn bad.” He spoke with a sudden intensity. “I don’t want her doing that to him anymore. Poisonin’ him. So ya gotta help him dig her out, Paul. Else she’ll turn this bad too.”

They looked at each other again, until Paul nodded. “I think I understand. I’ll find a way to talk to him.”

Achaicus drained his cup and rose to leave, relieved to be done with the awkward conversation. “That’s all I ask, Paul. For the Master’s sake.”

He threw some coins on the table. “I’ll bring the cloak by later,” he promised and walked out.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

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