My father’s voice, and loud. I cannot pretend I have not heard him. At dawn, the square is nearly quiet. Only the clink of metal as locks are undone, and the creak of doors opening. A late bat chitters by. I do not stop. Over my shoulder, I call, “I am going to the warehouses.”
“Not today.” A weight descends inside me. He will want me to do the accounts with him. Talk about prices and profit and who to bribe when. At the port there will be a breeze off the sea, and ships arriving, and the blue-eyed son of the harbourmaster.
I turn. I do not want to. But he is my father, and I am not officially of age.
“Wash,” he says, “and change into a better tunic. I am going to see our patron today, and you will come with me. It is time you began to learn how to conduct yourself in his presence.”
“Take Marius,” I suggest. Knowing what he’ll say.
“Marius can go to the warehouses. This is for the oldest son.” A low moan comes from the open window of our rooms above the shop. Another reason I was heading for the harbour. He glances up.
No point in arguing. I wash in the small courtyard behind the shop, running wet hands over my hair. It will dry soon enough in the warm air, like the spilled water on the rough cobbles. My youngest sister brings me my tunic. Another cry comes from above. She looks up. “Will she die?”
I lay the tunic over a shrub and hug my sister. She is ten, a girl still. I remember my mother’s screams when she was born. “What does our mother say?”
“That all is well.”
“Then it is.” I let her go to pull the tunic over my head. She helps me straighten it. “Go and help, yes?”
Our patron—Varos—lives several miles away, his house halfway up one of the many hills of Casil. We stop on the way to buy bread and figs at a stall, and drink a cup of water at one of the fountains. “Not too much,” my father warns. “We will have a long wait.”
By the time we reach the house I am sweating. I would like more water. There is a guard at the gate, his skin as dark as ours. “Salvius, good morning. Is this your boy?”
“Druisius, my oldest. Are there many before us?” he asks, not in Casilan, but in the language of his country. I was born there, but I do not remember much. Just ships, and the rough seas of the voyage, and arriving at the harbour. The lighthouse had been a wonder.
“Some,” the guard replies. “Go in.”
Inside the house is cool and dark. As my eyes adjust I see painted figures on the walls, and statues in hollows. Light gleams at the end of the corridor. I hear water running, but we turn into a room only a few steps from the door. A square room, with benches lining the walls, more in the centre. Several men sit along the far wall, on cushioned seats under windows. They nod to us. My father guides me to a bench without cushions, on the opposite wall.
Other men arrive. Those in fine tunics, wearing sandals of worked leather, take seats under the windows. Those dressed like my father and me choose the hard seats, and one or two in even coarser tunics crouch against the wall closest to the door.
At the far end of the room a door opens. A man steps out, looking around the room. He holds a writing tablet. Without asking names he begins to make a list. I look beyond him, into the room he has left. At a large table, I see a man, grey-haired, clean shaven, his shoulders a little stooped. This is Varos, yes?
A smile softens his face. A girl, maybe a year or two older than my youngest sister comes to his side. Her hair is the colour of new copper, and falls halfway down her back. The man says something to her. She leans in to kiss his cheek before moving from view.
I glance at my father. He has also been watching. “Eudekia,” he whispers to me. “His daughter.”
The first of the well-dressed men stands to follow the secretary into the office. When his footsteps on the flagged floor cease, I hear, from the corridor, a girl’s light voice. She is asking what sounds like a question. A man replies quietly. They are not speaking Casilan, or any language I know from the docks. I touch my father’s arm, tilt my head, frown.
He listens for a moment. “I do not know,” he murmurs.
We have been here an hour, more. How long will I have to sit? The poor men crouched against the wall doze. Two of the important men begin to talk in low tones. I lean back on the bench, close my eyes. Listening, not sleeping. They will not notice. At the harbour I carry cargo, stack amphorae. My body does the work. My ears listen.
They talk of war. Where? War changes things for merchants. Supplies are needed. Or sources of grain and oil are cut off. The war is to the east. But it was small, I hear, and over. They speak of a trial. Some official who has overstepped his authority and will be executed. This will not affect us.
The door into Varos’s office opens. One man leaves. Two—the two who spoke—go in. There are only three more. If no one else comes, we will be gone by midday. I hope. Maybe I can go to the harbour then. I think of the blue-eyed boy, the cool dark of the warehouse, salt on my lips. I cross my legs, stare at the ceiling. I think of Bernikë‘s cries in the dawn. She is fifteen. My older sister, my parents say.
Finally it is our turn. I follow my father into the office. The secretary closes the door, takes a seat at a smaller table. We stand.
“Salvius.” The grey-haired man behind the desk greets my father with apparent pleasure. Or no displeasure, at least. “And who is this?”
“My oldest boy. Druisius. With your leave, sir, I thought it time he began to learn more than the loading of ships.”
“Of course. Please sit.” Two stools stand in front of the man’s desk. I take the one closest to the secretary. I glance around the room. Shelves of books line the walls. Has this man read them all? There is a gameboard on a table. I recognize xache. My father plays it sometimes in the square.
“What may I do for you today?” Varos asks.
“I would like to buy another ship,” my father said. He has spoken of this over dinner. More people come to Casil every year. The demand for oil and grain grows. My uncles, who still live across the Nivéan sea, say they can fill another hold.
Varos asks questions. My father answers them. The secretary writes. I do my best to pay attention.
“How much do you need?” Varos asks.
My father shakes his head. “It is not money I need, sir. My brothers and I can finance the ship. It is the licenses.”
“I see.” Varos turns his attention to me, without warning. “Druisius. What licenses does your father speak of?”
Why is he asking me? But I know. Someday I am to take my father’s place. Our patron is testing me. “For the docks,” I tell him. “To allow a ship to berth. And to rent another warehouse, if we need it.”
We could just apply, bribe the clerks, wait half a year or more. If this man uses his influence to get us the license, what does he ask in return?
“If?” Varos asks. “Do you need another warehouse?” He holds up a hand to stop my father from replying. I picture our warehouse. Think about how it fills when the ships arrive. How many barge-loads and cartloads it takes to empty it again. Although it is never empty. To make space, then. I consider, calculate.
“Ships do not always arrive when they should,” I say. “Carts lose wheels, mules break legs. How much space do we need?” I spread my hands, palms up. My father’s gesture. A merchant’s. “Another ship’s cargo should not make us need another warehouse. But it might. So we need to be able to rent it for those times, yes?”
“And for that you need a license.” Varos nods. “You are training your son well, Salvius.” His words bring an inner shudder.
“He is learning,” my father says. “Later this summer I plan to send him on his first voyage.” Surprise replaces the shudder. It shows on my face, I know. He has not told me this, even though I have been asking for a year or more.
“I will arrange the licenses,” Varos tells us.
“Thank you, sir,” my father says. I repeat his words. Varos stands as we do.
“Tell the others to come back tomorrow,” he says to his secretary. “I must go to the forum.”
Outside, the day is even hotter. I turn to my father. “I am going across the sea? Soon?”
“Maybe,” he says. “Your answer was good, and correct. But understand I will be sending you to your uncles to learn the other side of the trade.”
“Not just a voyage?” I ask. “To live there?” I think of the blue-eyed boy, with a little regret.
“For a year or two. A marriage—” He stops, his lips twisting a little.
I shrug. He is not bothered by my nature. One of my uncles is the same. “Marius will marry.”
“And if Bernikë’s baby is a boy, we will adopt him as a son.”
At the bottom of the hill, where a wider street runs, shouting makes us both turn. Marching soldiers, and behind them a jeering crowd. What is happening?
“A foolish man,” my father murmurs. He must see my frown, because he adds, “Were you not listening when we waited?”
The execution. Of course. “Who was he?”
“The governor of Odïrya. He made war against a people who are Casil’s allies, for his own gain.” He hesitates, glances at the house behind us. “I should go to the forum, to stand with Varos in case there is trouble. It is what we do for our patrons.”
“I should come too, yes?” The idea is exciting.
His eyes narrow. He opens his mouth, closes it again. Then, to my surprise, he nods. “Stay close to me.”
The faint clang of metal behind us catches my attention. I turn, to see the red-haired girl with a man, tall and bald. They have come out of a gate in the wall.
She looks down the street at the yelling crowd. Her companion—her tutor, I think—says something to her. His hand touches her arm. She turns, reluctantly. But not before her eyes meet mine, and she smiles a little. Eudekia, I remember.
“EUDEKIA.” Nishan’s tone told me he was growing impatient. “You have had more than enough time to translate that passage. What does it say?”
I looked down again at the book on my desk, forcing myself to focus. Something was happening. A messenger had come earlier, dressed in the colours of the palace. My father had received him, then told his secretary to dismiss the waiting clients. His office doors were closed, both the one opening to the waiting room, and the private door.
“Now, please.” Nishan had been my tutor since I was eleven. In the ensuing four years, I’d never known him to lose his temper, but he was coming close. I studied the words. The Heræcrian script was faded, but there was light enough from the high windows to read it.
Seeing Aelena moving on the ramparts,
the men whispered to each other, words that…
I paused, seeking the right way to convey the meaning. Just changing the words to Casilan wasn’t what I was meant to do.
Drifted near-silent into the air,
‘But who would blame them?
Should we wonder that the men of her land
And those conquered
Have accepted agony in her name.
What beauty! What a woman! An immortal goddess, surely.’
Nishan nodded his approval. Did men really behave this way? Torture themselves for a beautiful woman? But before I could ask, my father appeared in the doorway.
“The poet would approve, I believe,” he said. “I must go to the palace, Eudekia, so I am afraid there will not be time for xache this afternoon.”
“The palace? Why?”
My father smiled, but he addressed my tutor, not me. Nishan had been his secretary before Mahir, until my father decided his skills were better used in my education. “You and I will have the same occupation, Nishan. I am to tutor the prince Philitos in philosophy and rhetoric.”
Nishan breathed out. “An honour, Varos.”
“I cannot disagree. But less time for my own study, and less for Eudekia, as well.” Only then did he turn his smile to me. “I was to go over the accounts this afternoon with Mahir. You may do that in my stead.”
“I?” He didn’t mean the household accounts; those were the steward’s responsibility, although I had overseen the quarterly review for a year now. “The patronage accounts?”
“Write down your questions and thoughts as they occur to you. We will discuss them this evening. Now I must change, so I will not disturb your lesson any longer.”
All my interest in conveying a Heræcrian poet’s words in translation had vanished. Nishan closed his copy, too, smiling. He was, I knew, genuinely happy for my father. They were friends, as much as a freedman and a dignitasi could be, and Nishan had been part of our household since long before I was born.
“How old is the prince?” Older than me, I was sure, but by how much?
“Eighteen. Your father is being modest.” Nishan gathered up the books, making a pile. “This appointment is not that of a simple tutor. The prince is a man now, and needs the finest minds educating and advising him in the duties he is given as the Emperor’s heir. Your father will have a role at the palace for many years, I should think.”
A cloud dimmed the patch of sunlight on the desktop. My stomach rumbled, reminding me it was nearly midday. I ignored it. The patronage accounts? Some of the men who my father advised, or used his money or influence to advance their interests, would be appalled to think I knew their business. That I was not yet betrothed, and that he was educating me beyond the usual expectation for women caused comment. But to involve me in trade or politics?
Nishan sensed my apprehension. “Shall I sit with you while you hear the accounting?”
I stood, sliding the stool neatly under the desk, thinking. “No.” My father had asked me to do this. I should do it alone. “Thank you, Nishan, but Mahir will explain, if I don’t understand something.”
“See to your hair, before you meet with Mahir.” I made a face, but he was right. I had twisted its red strands into knots, as I always did, studying. My father joked that he could tell how difficult the task Nishan had set me was by the state of my hair.