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I sent Cloelie to him then crawled into my bed to sleep. I didn’t have to see Decentius again until nightfall, and the village was only an hour’s walk.
Before I could fall asleep, I heard that incessant giggling out in the corridor. Cloelie had returned. I stood at the door, listening. Some of the other slaves gave me looks, but they returned to their beds at my glares. I opened the door a crack so I could see what she was giggling about this time.
There was Cloelie and her two friends standing outside the women’s quarters. Obviously the other women slaves found the giggling as annoying as I did so they had stayed in the hall. As when I’d first come across them, Cloelie was pale and sickly looking, and her friends were fawning over her.
“Yes,” Cloelie was saying regally, “he requested me specifically. Already. I heard the old Signore didn’t do that for years.” I could see the corner of her smirk and the looks of awe on her friends’ faces.
“Do you think he’d…raise you?” one of the friends asked.
Cloelie waved a hand. “Oh, you never know. Someone had better, soon, that’s all I know.” She huffed, then took one of her friend’s arms and they all headed into the women’s quarters.
So it seemed my master had the power to raise a slave. I wondered if that is what had been done to him; he certainly wasn’t born to power. I returned to my bed to go to sleep. Perhaps this ‘Neo’ would have some answers.
I awoke when the sun was nearing its height. There were at least a dozen other slaves and servants eating breakfast. Apparently this schedule was not unusual here. I spooned my porridge from the bowl and sat alone to eat. As I looked around the room I noticed that most of the slaves and servants were near my age. The women were a little younger. There were no children, and only one older man.
After taking the remains of my breakfast to be cleaned, I headed out for Noto. The walk was long and hot, and I had nothing to drink. My sandals and feet were covered with dust by the time I saw the village. Approaching it I saw several fields of grain. There were no clear borders, so how was I ever to determine which was the largest field? Not a problem.
I walked directly to the nearest field. It was full of slaves threshing. I knew at once who was the padrone. Head slightly bowed, I walked up to him. I shuffled my feet and looked down, around, and anywhere but at him. “What do you want?” he asked soon enough.
“They sent me to find Neo,” I peered up at him. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and pointed. I nodded and walked onwards.
Each field I came to I performed the same routine, and was pointed onwards, until the fourth when the padrone simply called out, “NEO!” A scruffy brown haired man turned, and the padrone pointed right at him. I nodded my thanks to the padrone and walked over to Neo.
Neo had wrinkles in the corners of his eyes and dark circles under them. He may have been fit once but now he was wan and looked hunted.
“What?” he asked when I stood in front of him.
I looked him in the eyes and he flinched. “A friend sent me to find you.”
He grunted. “I have no friends. Only demons.” I believed him.
Unfazed, I replied, “Nonetheless, I have been sent.”
“Fine,” he shrugged, “I’m working. Come back later.” He turned back to his threshing.
“Perhaps if I assisted you?” I said. I looked around. There was a pile of scythes at the padrone’s feet. Neo shrugged. I went over to the pile and picked up a scythe.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the padrone glared. “You don’t work here.”
“Sir, if I may? I shall assist Neo so that you do not lose any productivity due to my conversation with him.” The padrone grunted and shook his head.
“Fine, just don’t kill yourself.” He grinned at this remark, and pointed me towards a gap to Neo’s left. I took my place in line and began to swing the scythe. The grain fell before me.
The padrone kept me there until day’s end, which meant the sun was starting down. I had to get Neo somewhere and keep him there, then walk all the way back to the villa and get Decentius. I was not amused.
I swung my scythe over my shoulder and fell in step beside Neo. “I’m thirsty,” I said as we dropped our scythes into the pile.
“Fine,” he replied, “let’s get a drink.” Neo strode out of the field along a well-beaten path into the village of Noto. Enroute we passed an empty home. Neo flinched and doubled his pace as we drew near. He passed through the collection of houses and huts that was Noto with ease, and led me directly to a taverna. He pushed through the door and did not stop until he reached a table at the far back corner. “Good enough for you?” he asked, plopping into a chair.
I nodded and sat across from him. The chairs and table were worn and stained and smelled of alcohol. A man came over and plunked a drink in front of us both. Neo lifted his and drained it immediately. “Another,” he said handing the empty mug to the barman, who just nodded. My task had just become easier. I took a slow sip. Neo turned to look at me. “So, why are you looking for me?”
Not as dumb as he appeared. “As I said, a friend sent me.”
“Yes,” he grunted, “and as I said, I have no friends. Not anymore.” The barman returned and plunked two drinks in front of Neo. Neo picked up a mug from the table and stared into it. I waited. The more maudlin he was, the faster he’d get drunk and I could fetch Decentius. “I suppose you know why.” I shook my head, not even needing to lie.
“Well, I suppose it started about ten years ago,” Neo said, swirling his drink then downing half the mug. “My best friend, Demetrius, and I met this girl, woman really, Letha. Eros, she was beautiful. And kind. And sweet. And everything a man could want.” He paused to stare into his mug again, obviously seeing this ‘Letha’ in its depths. “And he won.”
Neo finished his drink, slammed it onto the table and put his face in his hands. “She told me I was too frivolous. And Demetri never was. So he won.” He lifted his head to look at me; his eyes pits edged with smile lines. I looked back at him then took a drink. Staring into his drink, he continued. “They got married and were deliriously happy. I was happy for them, at first, happy my friend had found someone. Then they started trying to have a family. And it didn’t take. And it didn’t take. They prayed at all the temples, did all the rituals, and it didn’t take. Years they spent, and money they couldn’t afford. Then finally she came to me.” He drained the second mug, thudded it on the table, and stared at me defiantly. “I did it for her. For him. For both of them, so they’d be happy. Except she died.” He stared at his empty mug until the barman noticed and came to replace the two empty ones with full ones. Then Neo downed half of one.
“She died, but the baby lived. Zoie. My daughter. Demetri’s daughter. All I got to be was ‘Uncle Neo’. But he had a piece of Letha and he went on. We went on together. And I thought it was going to be all right. Then he figured it out.” Another half a mug down. “That must have been it. He went berserk that morning, that whole day really. And the way he looked at me as he carried off Zoie’s body. As though I were a dead man.” He snorted. “I suppose the only reason I’m not is that he killed himself first. I guess. I found where he had buried Zoie, right with her mother. I saw the blood on the ground. Something must have taken the body.” He closed his eyes, and his voice dropped. “Or eaten it. Anyways,” he said returning to his story, “that’s it. I betrayed my friend, lost the woman I loved, my daughter, and him. I have no friends, only demons in my dreams. Unless I drown them.” He drank the second mug, looked at me as though he was going to ask something, and fell forward across the table.