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Cloelie’s arm was warm on mine; I felt her racing pulse through my cold skin. I watched her dark curls bounce as she pulled me along, not with enthusiasm as Zoe once had but with determination, and a perverse desire to be out of Antonius’ vicinity as quickly as she could. We went down one hall I was certain I’d never before entered; I marked its location as an excellent place to find unwary slaves.
I surmised our destination shortly before we arrived; when we entered the final hall Antonia was lounging against a door near its end. She rolled her head upwards to look at me as we approached. “Ready to foil Theophilus’ plans, are we?” she smiled.
With a look Antonia persuaded Cloelie to release my arm, taking it herself. The loss of Cloelie’s warmth startled me, but when Antonia turned an inquisitive look at me I merely smiled. As we stepped toward the door, Antonius shoved it open.
We entered to the startled faces of the two Greek merchants and their slaves. Four dark haired men stared at us. One of the merchants eyed Antonia with a smile; the other flicked his eyes from Antonius to me. They were seated at a small table, food splayed across it, slaves hovering behind casting wary looks at Antonius. One had eaten everything on his plate; the other had barely touched anything.
I raised my chin in greeting, and Antonia curtsied at my side. The two rose and moved toward us, the one who had barely eaten taking the lead. He stuck out his hand towards my own, the one that was not currently entwined around Antonia’s waist. “Buona sera, Dio,” he said. “I am called Yannis and this is my associate, Matthias.” His grin flashed white as he squeezed my hand with unneeded force. “Your slave bade us wait for you in most convincing fashion.” He cast an unworried glance at Antonius.
I eyed Antonius, who merely smiled his feral smile and nodded toward the Greeks.
“Theophilus did not wish us stay,” Yannis continued, “but your slave, and his charming companion,” he spared a lascivious smile for Cloelie, “worked around his wishes. I wonder Theophilus knows we are here?” His hands were on his hips, and he cocked his head, bird-like, but his expression was challenging.
I shrugged my shoulders noncommittally. “Theophilus shall pay attention to his business; I shall pay attention to mine.”
Yannis chuckled and shared a look with his countryman. “Ah, but I think that you wish his business to become yours, yes?”
A wry smile crawled across my face. “You are an astute man, Yannis, but you miss one point. The business Theophilus now claims as his own is mine; it has been so since the Signore became indisposed.”
“And what about when the Signore is no longer indisposed, hmm?” Yannis countered.
I opened my hands in motion of graceful resignation. “When that happens, we shall see where the pieces fall.”
Yannis grinned, chuckling, and slapped me on the back. “As you say, Decentius, we have business to pursue.” He looked around the room. “Sadly, I have no seats to offer you all,” he shrugged.
I heard Cloelie step forward before she crossed into my vision. I raised a hand to stop her. “If you will allow a seat for Donna Antonia?” I inquired. A flash of confusion crossed his face before Yannis bowed and pulled out a chair. Slipping from my arm, Antonia lounged on the chair, the picture of indolence. When her roaming eyes met mine, however, there was nothing lax in their expression. I smiled at Yannis, making sure the corners of my eyes crinkled with sincerity, “Then I am content to stand.”
Yannis slapped my back heartily once again. In my periphery, Antonius’ chest rose with stifled guffaws. Yannis did not move toward the other chair but instead scanned the room looking for someone else to fill it. His eyes lit when they came across Cloelie. “Sit, please, won’t you? We must have our ladies be comfortable.”
Cloelie glanced at me, unsure whether a mere slave should accept such an offer. I dipped my head in reply, and she smiled awkwardly at Yannis before allowing him to lead her to the other chair.
“Now, Decentius,” he said from behind Cloelie’s chair, leaning on its back like an eager falcon waiting to pounce, “what is it you want from me?”
Antonia’s eyes met mine; we both noted the singular pronoun. “I should like to know what trade it is you do with the villa. To be kept informed of the numbers. And to meet your master.” Yanni had nodded agreeably until the word ‘master’. At that he, and only he, blanched. “Soon,” I added.
Matthias moved next to Yanni and began whispering in his ear. “Who is he talking about? Our supplier?” I heard him say before Yanni waved him off with a flick of his hand.
“I can agree to the first two myself, but the latter will require consultation,” Yanni replied. His eyes fixed on my expression.
I nodded. “I would not expect it otherwise. What is it you bring this time?” I said, returning abruptly to the topic of trade.
It did not slow Yanni’s response a beat. “Oil, grapes, seeds, and some fabric gained from further abroad.”
“Seeds?” I said, both surprised and confused. The villa had and abundant supply of wheat for use and trade, a small garden of olives and grapes for the mortal’s repast, and a flock of sheep for wool, meat, and cheese. “What sort of seeds?”
Yanni shrugged, “Olive and grape. Oh, and also some honey.” He affected a casual attitude at this last, but tension ran through his neck and down his arms shaking the chair Cloelie sat in.
“Honey?” I cocked a brow, but did nothing else to betray my surprise. Honey was a rare and expensive delicacy. Why would Theophilus bargain for such a thing? “If it has been ordered, we shall accept it. This time.” I glanced at Antonius; he stepped quickly forward. “In the future you will speak with Antonius if I am unavailable. Theophilus may feel he is in charge, that is fine, but I do not wish you to mistake feeling for reality.”
Yanni nodded, grinning, and released Cloelie’s chair. His assistant Matthias nodded cautiously, likely still unsure as to what, precisely, had transpired. “The goods have been unloaded. Theophilus saw to that, and to the filling of our carts with the grain and wool we had requested.”
I cast an eye at Antonius. “That’s what happened, Dio,” he piped. “They trotted along doing exactly what Theophilus asked them. Until I put a word in their ear, that is.” Antonius’ feral grin was accompanied by a loud cracking; he was flexing his knuckles. This sound echoed through our small room causing whitened faces on all but Antonia and myself.
“Thank you, Antonius,” I replied. “Now, we will talk specifics. What have you been bringing and for how long?”
Yanni and Matthias were most helpful with their recollection of goods they had delivered to villa over the last five years; I hardly needed call on Antonius for his powers of persuasion at all. Antonia managed to prompt their memories on the rare occasions when neither nature nor Antonius sufficed.
It was not until I heard the first birds of morning as I lay on my bed, Antonia sprawled beside me, that I realized I had never told Yanni my name.