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Chapter 10: Decentius Makes Contact



Part 1

Antonius’ lesson continued until the early hours before dawn. When I dismissed him, I told him to bring first Cloelie, then Theophilus to me the following evening.

The next evening I awoke to the scent of darkness and salt with a hint of mortal sweat. As I sat up, I saw Cloelie hunched at the foot of my bed. She was hugging herself and glancing toward the door. My slow, silent movements did not disturb whatever reverie held her until I placed my hand on her shoulder.

“What troubles you, dear girl?” I whispered.

She started, pulling both away from me even as she leaned in for comfort, as though torn by some internal desire. “D...Dio,” she stammered, “I did not know you were already awake. Here.” In her anxiety she pulled down the collar of her stola so quickly she scratched herself. Droplets of blood rose on her neck. With a strength of self-control I had not known I possessed, I smiled, offered Cloelie my hand, and bade her sit.

Blinking, she did so. “Is there something I have done to offend you, Dio? Antonius,” she shuddered at his name, “summoned me here for you to feast on waking.”

I stroked her arm, and slowly her shudders faded. “Antonius bothers you, does he? I do not need to send him for you, if it displeases you.” She would not meet my eyes this night, and constantly glanced at the door. I did not need to touch her mind to know it was Antonius’ return she feared. “Would you rather I sought you out myself, Cloelie? It is no hardship.”

She tensed, as though caught, and shook her head violently. “It is nothing, Dio, nothing. I will deal with Antonius myself.” At this last she set her jaw resolutely and stared up into my eyes.

“Good, child, that is always the best way.” She smiled at my reply. I ran my finger along the line of scratches, lowering her collar. She closed her eyes and tilted her head.

When I had finished, she shuddered and pulled her collar up to cover the marks. I watched, perplexed, as she trod from the room her head high. I wanted to ask her what it was, but she was a slave and I could not appear too interested. Not yet.

As I donned a fresh tunic, there was a solid knock on my door. Theophilus, I thought; Antonius would never be so formal. “Enter,” I said.

The door swung inward and Theophilus strode in while Antonius scrambled in his wake. I did not mind having a servanti others were likely to underestimate, but still, some decorum was required. Theophilus stopped precisely two arm lengths in front of me and dipped his head. “You called for me, Dio.” His jaw was set, his eyes confrontational.

“I did,” I replied. “The courier to Messana, has he returned?” I hated having to ask; I would have to find some way to mingle with the slaves more. I needed to know they were mine, not Theophilus’.

Theophilus inclined his head in assent. “He has, Dio. He returned this afternoon. Would you like me to wake him and have him give you his report?” The evenness of Theophilus’ gaze bothered me; I could not tell if he were hiding something, or merely that secure in his place.

“I would,” I replied.

Theophilus bowed and exited the room. I turned my gaze to Antonius. “What do you know of him, of Theophilus?”

Antonius’ lip curled. “That he is arrogant and bossy. He believes everyone should report to him, and they do.”

“Except you,” I stated.

Antonius nodded, then grudging admitted, “And that girl, Cloelie. She is either waiting for you or Donna Antonia. She was closeted with Donna Antonia earlier; I had to drag her away to get here in time for you.”

That must have been why Cloelie was distressed. I did not share my thought with Antonius; I doubted his response would be sympathetic. “So, it seems I shall have to rely on you and Cloelie to inform me of anything maggiordomo Theophilus deems unworthy of my attention.”

Antonius grinned. I could see the possibilities opening in his mind. I hoped Cloelie would be amicable to the suggestion as well.

The formal knock sounded once again, announcing Theophilus’ return. I raised a brow at Antonius and he moved to open the door. In walked the youth Theophilus had been talking to when Antonia and I encountered him in the barn. The boy looked tired and apprehensive; I wondered what Theophilus had been telling the slaves about me.

“Good evening, Dio,” the boy stuttered. “The maggiordomo said you wanted to speak with me?”

Theophilus entered after the boy, and stopped behind him. Theophilus did not look at the boy; instead he focused on my face holding his own neutral.

“I did,” I replied, watching Theophilus in the edge of my vision. “Tell of what happened in Messana.” I stared at the boy, watching as he twitched and fidgeted, seeing a flash of a smile on Theophilus’ face when the boy turned toward him as if seeking permission to speak.

The boy fidgeted as he responded, “I delivered the grain, Dio. The Greeks took it and left. umm, they gave me the money, and I returned here.” I stared into his mind. Was it simple nerves? I could feel vibration that was his nervousness, and see the edge of his memory; it rippled. The boy’s face blurred in front of me as I pushed to touch the memory. The memory felt rough, like a scythe patched together by an apprentice. I didn’t bother to look further. As I drew out of the boy’s mind I saw Theophilus’ eyes on me awaiting my reaction.

I turned to him and smiled, watching him blanch as the corners of my mouth rose. For the boy, I my smile was genuine. “Thank you for your assistance…” I paused, I did not know his name. “Your name?”

Eyes fixed firmly on his twisting hands, he muttered, “Nikolaos, Dio.”

I nodded. “Thank you for your assistance, Nikolaos. I shall call on you again tomorrow eve for more.” Nikolaos jerked a bow in my direction and skittered out the door.

As the door banged shut, I turned to Theophilus. Antonius grinned. I chuckled deep in my throat. “Such shoddy work, Theophilus. One would almost think you wanted to be caught.”

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