The Maiden's Odyssey by Paul Coulter - HTML preview
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Chained to Berenice in front and a fussy slave named Aphion behind, Nerissa stared resolutely at the port. This town was no great metropolis, yet it lay on the largest harbor she’d seen in all her travels. A high peak rose behind, extremely steep except for its bare summit. She heard the navigator Psatos call its name.
“Hail, shining Neriton, proud seat of valor-draped Ithacus,” he said with words that sounded ancient. His arms were held up to the sky. “All praise to mighty, peerless Poseidon who guides us safely home.”
Nerissa remembered Father’s tale of the ancient hero Ithacus. He’d come shipwrecked to this island, then slain the winged monster Periphyne on the highest peak. He freed men from the torpor that the gryphon’s vapor bred. Revived, they hailed Ithacus as the first king of their island.
At an order from Chymides, the galley slaves all shipped their oars. The mute who manned the kettle drum silenced his beat. The Thallia rode effortlessly into Ithaca’s vast harbor. The water, now dark blue and free of waves except for a fast moving rip, surged at neap tide toward the port. Nerissa watched Psatos as he used a sounding rod to probe for clearance. She heard him sing out depths to Hycron at the helm. The Thallia glided to a smooth landing at the pier.
Above, three sailors raced across ratlines to furl the frayed sail tight. Others threw down mooring hawsers. Dock slaves tied these ropes to iron rings set into stone bollards. Rough voices rose into a great cacophony. Among the many languages, Nerissa picked out Ionian, Aeolian, Corinthian, Ionic, and Attic, alongside Minoan and Aramaic. She’d noticed the same thing in Smyrna. Slaves came from so many different places, they could hardly speak to one another, let alone organize to defy their overseers.Bare-chested men extended a ramp from the pier up to the weather deck. Chymides shouted at his landing crew to get the slaves ashore at once. Hematheus prodded Berenice, who stood at the front of Nerissa’s ten-slave chain.
Berenice reached back to squeeze Nerissa’s hand in encouragement, then stepped onto the ramp. She shuffled forward, careful not to trip. Nerissa followed slowly, then Aphion, and then the seven others. Hycron said nothing before they left, not even a warning of those things that would bring wrath from their new owners. He regarded them appraisingly, measuring their value by the weight they’d managed to keep on. He’d no more speak to them than a cargo of livestock or bales of fleece.
Once the ten slaves stood on land, four more chains followed, the last one short. Including herself, Nerissa counted 49 surviving slaves. Seven sevens. It would have been the most fortunate of omens, except that this was also the number of corpses hauled out of their hold.
Mother hadn’t approved, but as a child, Father taught her how to cipher. Though he valued her three older brothers’ strength and courage, he’d recognized Nerissa as the best choice for inclusion in the mystery of numbers. By the age of eight, she was adept at making tallies, following the system adapted from Phoenicia. She could quickly identify long strings of numerals, barred Ð for pente, D for deka, H for hekaton, X for chilia, and M for myriads, then calculate the added values when they were arrayed in columns. It proved to be a very useful skill, in recording baskets of delivered fish, drachmai earned and spent, supplies delivered from the chandlers. Without this knowledge, they never could have kept the tradesmen honest.
The short chain now on land, Chymides snapped his lash to move them forward. He was enjoying himself, singing the bawdy song about a shipwright’s uncomfortably long association with a narrow knothole. Though the slaves shared no part of his cheerful spirit, all 49 moved off with a brisk step, before the ox-hide reached them. Of course, this now unlucky sum didn’t include the oarsmen, who'd remained fastened to their benches. They weren’t part of Hycron’s trading venture with his Ithacan partners.
The five chains of consigned slaves jerked uphill with the jarring clash of metal. But after numerous tugs against raw ankles, they learned to move as one. By the time they reached a wide street leading to the agora, their rhythm had grown syncopated. It produced a curiously appealing beat.
This island was rich, Nerissa saw. While there’d been rough dress and even rougher language at the docks, Ithaca’s townsmen took great pride in their appearance. The women adorned their wrists with elaborately chased bands of silver or electrum. There were costly silken sashes on each peplos, belted just below the bust to compliment their figures. Nerissa couldn’t help but admire this style. In Smyrna, women wore their sashes at the waist. Of course, it had been more than two years since she’d left home. Maybe this new fashion had traveled across the sea by now.
Then she noticed that girls her age had plaited blossoms in their hair, tied by cords of matching color. She guessed it meant that they were marriageable, the way that pleated folds on a maiden’s hem meant the same in her part of the world.
The prettiest girl wore narcissus flowers, bound in gold. Nerissa wondered if the ribbon was actually woven out of hammered gold.
“Do you think she can resist her own reflection?” whispered Berenice as the chain had to halt for passing carts. “You know, like Narcissus, herself.”
“I see what you mean,” said Nerissa. “She does look the sort who loves her beauty so well she might fall into a pond and drown from staring at it.
“But you have to admit, it’s exquisite the way they dress and fix their hair.”
“I wonder if they wear it daily. Their body slaves must take hours to arrange such an elaborate style. Who wants to sit still for such a long time every morning?”
“You’re right. They probably only do it for feast days, when eligible men will see them. What would be the point most days at home, when they don’t leave the women’s quarter?”
Nerissa felt a little better as they started up again. She could kiss Berenice for cheering her with ordinary conversation. For a moment, it had taken her mind away from all the shades who plagued it.
With the gloom lifted, she continued to notice the Ithacans. Did the men always wear such spotless chitons, made of the finest, snow-white linen? Some trailed on the ground, wrapped from luxuriously wide fabric. But short or long, the fashion here was to drape a fold under the left arm, leaving the right side open. She wondered if they forced left-handed boys to switch. This wasn’t the case in Smyrna -- for example, her eldest brother Kestides had gripped his sword left-handed. That’s why he’d arranged his chiton to fall open on that side. Until that disastrous battle on Imbrus, it had always served him well.
Two men, noble in appearance, wore cloaks stained to a deep indigo. She’d once heard Father say this precious color came from sea snails, imported all the way from Libya. She could see that many people here were prosperous. Their class status seemed to come from wealth, whereas in Smyrna, it had depended on one’s family name.
Now as they entered the agora, Nerissa saw a long, colonnaded stoa. Open on one side to the central square, it contained the stalls of many merchants. While it was made of common limestone, prominent buildings surrounding the agora had walls of gleaming marble. Another sign that this place was very prosperous. Ithaca’s masons had used massive blocks, soft and creamy in appearance, laced with fine, speckled veins of black. They’d dressed the stones with such exceptional care, it was difficult to see the seams between them.
Framed by the central columns of the largest structure, four priests surrounded a pure white bullock garlanded with red and yellow flowers. Three held it down, while the fourth prepared to slit its belly. Nerissa could see that the altar had already been anointed with spring water and the beast sprinkled with grain. An alabaster bowl stood ready to accept the bullock’s entrails. Holding up a gleaming blade, the senior priest invoked Olympus to look with favor on this sacrifice. His scratchy voice rose high in volume to compete with the bullock’s frantic lowing.
As Nerissa watched, the beast’s rear hoof thumped one of the assistant priests square in his stomach. The young man staggered back, tumbled down the marble steps, then lay at the bottom in a heap. Those waiting to be blessed with blood gathered nervously around him. They all thought he was dead, badly injured at the very least. Their faces showed deep fear at this dire omen.
But the only injury was to the young priest’s pride. Rising now, he struggled free from the many hands that pulled his long, thin arms. He dusted off his white tunic, hurried up the stairs, mumbled an apology to his scowling superior, and once more grasped the bullock’s hind legs. With an irritated glance, the senior priest resumed his prayer.
A larger audience attracted by this drama stayed to watch. The beast thrashed wildly as the bright blade slashed its belly open. Nerissa wondered why they didn’t club it first and cut its throat. That’s what priests did in Smyrna and everywhere she’d seen. Then all this tumult could have been avoided.
The three assistant priests hung on, but their robes were splashed with blood and gore. The graybeard looked up at them, but not reproachfully this time. From the way he studied them, Nerissa guessed the red patterns across their robes formed the augury he sought. It must have been auspicious, because he nodded with approval.
He smiled as he said something to the gangly one who’d fallen down the steps. This young priest let go of the now quivering bullock, stood, and brought the basin. To Nerissa, the pattern on his robe appeared to be a map of the Aegean. Fortunate for Ithacans, maybe, but not for her. She wondered which God blessed this temple and this auction day. Was it one of those who’d been so hostile to her clan?
Peering past the knot of priests, Nerissa looked for statuary between the temple’s many columns. But the day was bright, and the peristylon’s recesses lay in shadow. The God, undisturbed by this respectful outdoor rite, enjoyed His privacy within. Lowering her gaze to the temple’s plinth, its inscription read, “Dedicated to the glory of Poseidon from The Demos of Ithaca.”
Yes, in addition to mathematics, Father had taught Nerissa how to read. Over Mother’s strong objections, he’d encouraged her to recite lessons with her older brothers Euredon, Nikos, and Kestides.
Though only a fisherman, Father hadn’t always been so humble. At least, Nerissa suspected as much, from something she’d overheard Smyrna’s aged harbormaster blurt after three large bowls of wine. Neither of her parents would explain what this drunken comment meant, but it was obvious that Father and Mother both possessed fine educations.
They didn’t speak in coarse tones like others in the herring fleet. Straining at their hardest tasks, they were more likely to quote poetry than utter foulmouthed oaths. Mother, so careful to conserve their funds, never complained if Father accepted moth eaten scrolls as barter. And every evening that Father was ashore, there’d be music so melodious, Nerissa used to listen with her mouth agape. When Father played his dented lyre and Mother her well-polished harp, it always seemed like each note was a drop of golden nectar waiting to be tasted. As a little girl, she longed to know the secret of turning sound to sweetness on her tongue.
Mother used to look so happy on those evenings. She’d glance up as she played a flowing passage, stealing looks at Father, blushing like a girl. And when he’d smile at her, his white teeth gleaming at the center of his burnished beard, she’d glow just like a candle’s flame. It gave Nerissa hope that some day a bit of that same love might be turned on her.
Before the family went to bed, Father would burn costly oil reading an installment from some ancient tale aloud. From the table where she sewed, Mother always gazed on him with allaccepting admiration. She couldn’t take her eyes off Father’s ruddy face, but never pricked her finger with the needle or even missed a stitch.
With such a youth, Nerissa had learned two lessons well. The first was that nothing she could do would ever win Mother’s approval, much less her affection. The second was that the surest way to a safe berth in Father’s heart was by mastering the ancient texts he treasured. She’d diligently learned the art of turning each bought or borrowed scroll into fresh knowledge -fresh to a young girl, anyway.
Now, as they approached a wooden platform, Nerissa remembered one of Father’s favorites. It was the legend of Cadmus, inventor of the alphabet and agriculture. While trying to rescue his sister Europa, who’d been abducted to Crete by Zeus in the form of a white bull, he’d slain a dragon sacred to Ares. He’d sown its teeth into the race of men called Spartans, further enraging Ares. No penance was enough -- misfortune followed Cadmus and his family all their days. The tale was sad, but these lines were full of iron. Nerissa knew that she must also be as hard as forged metal, to face what lay ahead.
Four brawny guards took charge of them, each armed with a pike. They stopped in front of empty pens. At first, Nerissa thought the slaves were meant to go inside, but no one opened the gate. Then she realized these pens weren’t for humans. Horses, breeding rams, and kine must be auctioned here on different days. After all, there wasn’t much difference between selling animals and slaves. Back home in Smyrna, the markets had also been adjacent. In fact, the Ionian dialect they spoke on Ithaca referred to a four legged beast as tetrapodon, and a slave as andropodon. In other words, chattel with the feet of a man.
Overhearing the guards’ talk, Nerissa gathered that they didn’t think much of this new lot. They discussed the slaves’ thin bodies as if they were appraising horses. She also gathered that this town was known as Polis. Which suggested a deep lack of imagination among the Ithacans, since Polis simply meant “city” in Ionian.
Atop the platform, a clean-shaven slave dealer stood studying a bound codex of parchment sheets. Nerissa assumed it was his record of accounts. She wondered how her name looked on the open leaf. Back home, she’d practiced tracing it into the sand along the Meles, but she’d never seen it written on expensive parchment.
An argument nearby diverted her attention. A weedy man with badly cropped hair was squabbling over short weights used at a fishmonger’s stall. Too poor to own a slave, Nerissa guessed. So impoverished that he didn’t even have a wife. Who must serve as the poor man’s slave, the saying went. It was rare to see a male customer haggling in the market. This one commanded a rare variety of filthy language, too.
It wasn’t the only thing filthy about him. Unlike others in the crowd, his clothes were anything but neat. As the breeze shifted toward her, Nerissa learned he wasn’t careful in his hygiene, either. Probably a swineherd. He smelled just like a boar in rut.
The swineherd caught her staring at him. He glowered so fiercely, Nerissa dropped her eyes at once. It was unlike her to be timid, but she was in chains and this fellow had a seething look. The sort whose rage against the world was always a tiny spark away from leaping into conflagration. She’d met such men before. They marched around just looking for that spark.
“Come on, they’re starting soon.” It was a huge man speaking to the scrawny one. “You can sweet talk with your darling later.”
“What? She’s not my darling!” He turned back with a contemptuous look at the fishmonger’s daughter. “Her face is bloated like those rotten mullets she tried to sell me. And her eyes bulge out more than theirs.”
“Yeah, and you stink even worse.”
“I stink, do I? How about I bash your nose in? Then you won’t have to smell me any more.”
“I’d like to see you try. Here, I’ll give you a boost, so you can reach. Just don’t complain when I squeeze your guts out through Aphrodite’s tunnel.”
“Oh, very clever. At least my spearhead’s where it should be. Everyone says yours is in the center of your face, poking through a ragged foreskin. With that kind of nose, I’ll be doing you a favor to mash it flat.”
The huge one took a swing, easily dodged by the smaller man. Though very thin, he was quick and agile. He got around his friend, leapt on his back, and pummeled him about the ears. The big man whirled just like a dancing bear Nerissa once saw exhibited in Smyrna on the Feast Day of Apollo. Here in Ithaca, the fellow slapped at his tormentor as if he were a plague of gnats. More often than not, he hit himself.
Nerissa smiled, again distracted from her grief, her body’s aches, and the ordeal ahead. These two brawlers reminded her of a giant and a dwarf back home, who’d competed with the dancing bear for coins. In the Smyrnan market, everybody loved to watch these two. The feast day crowd all cheered when the dwarf smacked his partner with a pole or jabbed him in the gut or pelted him with steaming horse turds. When the giant finally caught him, raised him up as if to bite the dwarf in two, everybody roared with delight to see the little fellow piss into his towering opponent’s eyes.
This didn’t happen here, of course. As a bell sounded to announce the auction’s start, the swineherd jumped down from his friend’s back, and hurried toward the platform.
The crowd gathered from every corner of the square, from the vegetable market to the saddler’s stall, from the man cooking chunks of roasted kid over a brazier, from the shops of potters, mercers, armorers, chandlers, lamp merchants, apothecaries, and many more. A holy mendicant scooped up the pile of alms tossed onto his blanket, a knife sharpener abandoned his grindstone. Down the long agora’s length, the only one remaining was a slave who tested coins, afraid to leave his master’s coffer.
The cacophony of sounds that filled the market minutes earlier, the arguments, competing cries of merchants, squawks of poultry hoisted by their feet, delighted whoops of children at a tumbler’s antics, intonation of the priests over their sacrificial bullock, declamation of an orator, yelp of a small boy as the barber lanced his boil, enticements of two prostitutes leaning out from upper windows, strumming of a kithara and fluting from a syrinx and sweet tones of the doublereeded aulos, the chink of oboloi tossed into these players’ bowl… all this had transformed into a growing rumble of excitement.
Now latecomers rushed in, jostling for positions at the back. A father hoisted his little son onto his shoulders. Older youths knocked down younger ones who’d climbed onto the roofs of stalls. When there was a batch of slaves to sell, the event not only drew many customers, but it was a much relished entertainment.
Again, Hematheus prodded Berenice to step forward. As she began to climb the platform’s steps, the slave dealer Antechron held up a hand to stop her. He spoke to Chymides, making it clear he wanted children first. Because she was fluent in Ionian, Nerissa learned the sequence needed to be girls, then boys, then older women, followed by the nubile ones. Finally, they’d sell full-grown men. Antechron wished to let his auction build to slaves of greatest value. Experience must have taught him that this order would produce the highest profits.
While six prepubescent girls were sold, Nerissa took the opportunity to study the most active bidders. Men of property were allowed to examine each lot for a period of one quarter hour. The buyers weren’t rough, she noticed. Some spoke gently to those children who could answer in Ionian. They felt arms and legs, raised tunics to make sure everything was where it should be, looked into mouths to check they had full sets of teeth. Though all were thin from the long voyage, none showed signs of wasting sickness. The fever that claimed 49 had passed last week. The Gods had spared these children to a different fate.
Nerissa recognized one of the most active bidders. It was the weedy swineherd who’d haggled over fish, then brawled with his huge friend. He’d opened the auctions for three of the younger girls. He’d lost each time, unwilling to exceed one hundred drachmai. He’d glowered at the eventual winners as they raised their arms to top his bids. If she’d read his darting eyes correctly, he threatened to harm their families if they dared to cross him. Maybe he’d send his enormous friend to pull down their doorframes But the successful buyers hadn’t paid the least attention. The swineherd obviously held little repute among his fellow Ithacans. Frankly, Nerissa felt surprised he even had one hundred drachmai.
Turning from the bidders, she gazed around the crowd. It was easy to identify slaves by the coarse fabric of their chitons and wooden fibulai that bound these robes. They looked well fed, and reasonably well contented with their stations. One plump woman appeared to be a wet nurse. Her features were Anatolian, her hair as black as pitch, but she carried a blond infant at her breast. Another slave minded two small children, while a richly ornamented woman chatted with a friend. Both of these matrons were veiled and gloved. The only features they exposed were sky-blue eyes delicately lined with green. Nerissa wondered if this cosmetic might be powdered malachite, imported at great expense from Egypt.
Maybe one of these fine women will buy me, Nerissa thought with a slight rise of optimism. If I please my mistress well, in time she might allow me some degree of freedom. Maybe even a cottage of my own, a place to build the shrine for those who've died.
They finished auctioning the boys, then the largest guard prodded Berenice to mount the stairs. Aphion and two other men had already been removed from Nerissa’s chain. So had two older women. These five sets of leg irons were filled by nubile maidens pulled from other chains.
Now they all stood on the platform. Before he invited potential bidders to come make their inspections, Antechron launched into a spiel of praise. He pointed out Dzunga’s splendid form and sultry face. It was true she’d kept her figure, since she’d spent the voyage eating scraps from Captain Hycron’s table. But she had deep bruises on her back, out of the crowd’s view. And Dzunga’s expression was more sullen than sultry. In Scythian, she’d cursed Hycron all the way from their vessel to the plaza. He’d shown not one mark of favor, after bedding her for weeks on end. He couldn’t care less who bought Dzunga, so long as it gained him a maximum return.
Antechron turned to Berenice. Eldest of the maidens, she had a shape more motherly than ripe. But he extolled her lineage, from an ancient clan on Rhodos. Nerissa knew this couldn’t be further from the truth. On one of those many long nights in the hold, when the last sailor had left, Berenice confided she was the daughter of a prostitute and she’d never known her father.
“I was ten when the tavern keeper who pandered Mama sold me into slavery. He said it was time I earned my keep as a khamaitypes.”
Beyond the word’s literal meaning of “one who hits the ground,” Nerissa knew exactly what it meant for Berenice. She’d had to earn her daily bowl of gruel by screwing a never ending line of customers on a stinking, muddy floor.
“But our building burned down five years later, then our master’s biggest competitor bought me. He had me walk the sailors’ district wearing sandals with AKOLOUTHI carved into their soles.”
Nerissa could picture the reason immediately. In the dirt lanes of her route, Berenice’s footprints urged men to "Follow me."
“Then in my eighteenth year, a tinsmith bought my contract. He was one of my regular clients and took a liking to me. But only a year later, he sold me to Hycron after I miscarried a male child. My new master said the boy would’ve become his son, because his wife was barren, but now he decided that I was unlucky.”
Here on the Ithacan platform, Berenice sighed with resignation. Antechron drew a dagger from his sash, its silver hilt shaped into a faun. He used its point to trace Berenice’s fertile shape. Quite plump when their voyage started, she wasn’t rail thin like everyone but Dzunga. As the men grinned with appreciation, the slave dealer suddenly grabbed Berenice’s arm. With one quick motion, he slit her robe from neck to waist. He pulled the rent halves of the fabric off her shoulders, then passed his hands over Berenice’s full breasts and round hips. She reddened with shame, but knew better than to protest.
When Antechron was done with Berenice, he proceeded down the line. He richly praised something about each maiden, either her face or fecundity or willingness to please. He came last to Nerissa, spreading out his arms in silent tribute. No words were necessary to describe the delicate beauty of her features.
Of course, he’d intentionally positioned her in profile. From this side, no one in the crowd could see what Chymides had done to her jaw. Thanks to his three-knuckled fist, it was badly swollen, discolored to the dark color of rotting meat, beginning to go a sickly yellow around the edges. And Antechron didn’t strip her, as he’d done with Berenice. He’d taken one look at her jaw and guessed her body was a mass of bruises, far worse than Dzunga’s.
Won’t his game be up once bidders step onto the platform? Nerissa wondered. Someone will lift my chiton, like they did to the young girls. Everyone will see my mutilated breasts.
When the public inspection commenced, Nerissa’s foreboding turned out to be accurate. The very things she’d feared began to happen almost immediately. A knot of twenty men flocked straight to her, while maybe half that number went to look at Dzunga. For a moment, Dzunga’s glare of irritation gave Nerissa a rare glint of pleasure.
It faded quickly once the first men saw the damage caused by Chymides. They couldn’t help but do so, since Nerissa straightened painfully and turned that side to them. “It’ll heal,” said one of the caped men to the other, but when he raised her chiton, Nerissa knew he’d never buy her for a bed mate.
The men left quickly. Most didn’t bother to mask their repulsion. Nerissa felt as if each man had punched her in the stomach.
Most of the buyers now went in a beeline toward Dzunga. A heavy one seemed to be taken with Berenice, and a tall man hovered jealously beside the youngest girl. Wiping off the one teardrop that had managed to break through her resolve, Nerissa regained her composure. She exhaled with relief. The twin scars from Hycron may have been a gift.
Then one of the crowd surrounding Dzunga turned and left her. Though he came rapidly toward Nerissa, there was something furtive about his gait. His eyes were even slier. He seemed incapable of holding them in one direction for more than a single second.
Nerissa didn’t recognize him immediately, because his huge friend wasn’t with him any more. But now she saw it was the swineherd who’d tried to buy the younger girls.
She turned the left side of her face toward him, too. The sooner he saw her ugliness and left, the less she’d have to endure his stench.
Instead, the man grinned with satisfaction, exposing his stained teeth. She wished he hadn’t, because his breath smelled fouler than his body. It was anything but the way he’d glared at her before. Or maybe that was why he looked so smug. He probably imagined how he’d make Nerissa pay for the insolence of staring at him earlier. Once she was his property, he could do anything he wanted.
He continued grinning even as Nerissa scowled at him. Showing meekness wouldn’t save her now, but maybe she could give him second thoughts about buying such an ugly slave. His eyes held still long enough to see they were a murky brown. His uneven hair was mud brown, too. He must have hacked it with a knife. Probably the same chipped blade he used for eating. She noticed there were bits of dirty straw caught in his hair. A tangle above his right ear looked cemented by manure. He reached into his knee-length chiton, brought out a purse of coins, and bounced it on his palm.
“I’ll get you for a song,” he said with a smirk. “I’ll offer fifty. I’ll go as high as eighty. Let’s see these bastards top that for a Gorgon.”
“If I’m a Gorgon, why would you want me?” Nerissa couldn’t help but ask.
“Because my ewe shed doesn’t have a lantern. It makes no difference what you look like in the dark.”
“Who’ll open the bidding at one hundred?” asked Antechron when it was Nerissa’s turn. “A mere one hundred drachmai for this doe-eyed princess. I don’t claim she’s perfect. You all know I’m an honest man. It’s true she’s had a rough voyage. But let’s speak plainly, gentlemen. When will you have another chance to lay your hands on such a lovely specimen? Just look at her profile. No man can deny it’s perfect! The other side will heal, and those scratches on her titties, why they’re nothing. She’s young and healthy. She’ll fill out every day. Give it a month or two, and you can have Aphrodite in your bed.”“I’ll give you fifty,” offered the swineherd. There was a murmur in the crowd. The swineherd wheeled around to glare at them. Whether it was from his silent promise of revenge or the other buyers’ conviction that she wasn’t worth fifty drachmai, let alone one hundred, no one topped his bid.
“Fifty?” said Antechron in a tone of disbelief. “Has Hephaestus blown smoke from His eternal forge into your eyes? Can’t you see this maiden’s great potential? I can’t possibly accept less than one hundred drachmai for such a treasure.”
The buyers remained silent. For a minute, the only sounds within the square were a crying infant and Nerissa’s heart beat.
“Sixty,” a voice finally spoke up from the rear.
Nerissa couldn’t see who it was, but the tone was weak and high pitched, like that of an elderly man.
That won’t be so bad, Nerissa thought. He won’t use my body often. And if he beats me, the strokes won’t have much force.
“Eighty,” said the swineherd, jumping past seventy to the figure he’d cited as his limit.
It worked, freezing out the other bidder. The crowd turned back to watch him. Through a gap, Nerissa could see it wasn’t an old-timer, but an ordinary looking man. He broke out in a fit of wheezing and turned his head away. Maybe he suffered from the coughing sickness. Now, Nerissa felt relieved he hadn’t won the auction.
“Eighty? Is that all you fine men of Ithaca can spend on a prime bedmate? I just sold a consignment of artisans at Korinthos for two hundred each. They’ll earn their masters a drachma every day. A lovely handful of oboloi. If you choose to rent her out, this girl could easily double that.”
Only silence met his spiel. Nerissa felt increasingly afraid that the swineherd’s bid would win.
“Come, I know your purses jingle happily this year,” coaxed Antechron. “We’ve had three straight bountiful harvests. Our boatyard’s gained renown for the speed and power of our triremes. Many of you have profited on our pottery’s fine reputation throughout Hellas. And you can’t even afford one hundred drachmai for this slightly imperfect goddess?”
“She’s mine at eighty!” shouted the swineherd. “Stop dragging it out. I have other things to do today.”
“Right -- the wine shop opens at the second hour,” Nerissa heard the man who’d admired Berenice say to his wife.
“Eighty’s all you’re getting,” insisted the swineherd. “You’ve wasted enough time. Just say, ‘Sold!’ you charlatan. You can be damned glad I’m willing to give you eighty, when fifty’s more than generous.”
“Very well,” said Antechron. “I hate to do it, when she’s a pearl who should bring hundreds, but--”
“You’ll be so good as to wait while I climb up,” came a well-bred, female voice.
“Er, you mean to come onto the platform, Lady Phyllis? For what reason, if I may ask?”
“My husband isn’t expected back from Stratos until tomorrow. I know it’s not the custom, but I need to inspect the slave, myself.”
“You wish to make a bid, my lady?”
“If she’s satisfactory.”
“In what way? If you wish an opportunity to see her body like the men, I admit that she’s been cut across, er--”
“So I gathered from your earlier comments. But I’m not interested in her body. What I require is a well-trained girl who speaks our language fluently. My neighbor Rhialete tells me that her husband heard this girl speaking in Ionian.”
“It’s true, my lady,” spoke up Nerissa. “I also have some knowledge of literature, mathematics, and geography, if perhaps you need a she-pedagogue.”
“You have excellent diction,” said Phyllis. “But your accent’s strange. I take it that Ionian isn’t your first language?”
“No, my lady. I come from Smyrna, where we speak Ionic. Which as I’m sure you know, is very different from Ionian, though the names are similar.”
“Very well, that will do.” Then addressing Antechron, she added, “I won’t need to breach custom after all. I can see from here she’ll serve. You may have your one hundred for her.”
“No!” roared the swineherd. “That offer is illegal. Women aren’t allowed to bid on slaves. You shouldn’t even be here at an auction.”
“Show me where it says that in our laws,” said Lady Phyllis. “That’s merely how our great-grandmothers behaved. But these are modern times. We don’t bar wives from public life. We don’t hold women less than respectable for speaking to an unrelated man.”
“It’s a rule that goes back centuries, unwritten or not. You’ll offend the Gods by entering the commercial province of men.”
“There’s no sound reason why I shouldn’t buy a slave who’ll serve me and not my husband. He was called away to attend urgent business in Stratos, as you all know. He’d honor my request and buy this slave, if he were here.”
“But he’s not, and that’s an end to it,” the swineherd said. “No disrespect, but you don’t have the right to buy a slave.”
“The council can argue this question later. A council on which my husband sits, in case too many bowls of wine have washed that fact out of your head. For now, there’s no law you can cite that prevents me from purchasing this girl.”
“You’re wrong. There is a law. You can’t pledge silver you don’t have. Only men control a family’s funds. If you spent it, that would be the same as theft.”
“These hundred drachmai are my own money, inherited from my father. You have no protest on those grounds.”
“That’s true,” said Antechron. “I’ve seen similar cases elsewhere. This is hardly the first time a woman’s bought a slave from me.”
The swineherd turned to his huge friend. Though she couldn’t hear what he said, Nerissa could see that he was demanding a loan. The big man kept shaking his head. Finally, the swineherd grabbed his friend’s purse. They pulled it back and forth until it spilled open. Only a few oboloi tumbled on the ground. Mortified that everyone saw his penury, he snatched up his coins and fled.
“I take it you don’t wish to raise your offer?” Antechron said to the swineherd. “If there are no other bids--”
“I’ll match one hundred drachmai if you’ll give her to me.”
It was clear that he had no more money.
“Sorry, I can’t do that. Lady Phyllis made the offer first.”
“Sleep lightly, Antechron,” the swineherd threatened, then shoved his way through the crowd.
“Sold,” said Antechron. “This comely maiden goes to Lady Phyllis for the sum of one hundred drachmai. And well played, may I say.”
Nerissa knew that beauty was the last thing behind her purchase. Her new mistress looked extremely clever. Who better to serve a noble household than a capable young woman whom her husband wouldn’t touch?