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“Marcus, Marcus, what am I going to do with you?”
Marcus’ shoulders slumped at his creditor’s words. He had expected at least a “hello” before getting down to business, especially from an old friend like Alexander Lycentius. Marcus didn’t bother turning around. He preferred enjoying the beauty in Alexander’s peristyle. The garden before him was tastefully filled with mountain flowers, native to the region but nonetheless rare. In the center of the garden stood a stunning marble depiction of Venus. Clothed in a toga that revealed her slender frame, she looked down at a tortoise at her feet, clutching a rose to her chest. An identical statue had once graced Marcus’ courtyard and had been his wife’s favorite before her death, and then had been auctioned with everything else when his business sunk. Could it be one and the same?
“You’re overdue on your payments,” Alexander continued. “Your latest business attempts have been pitiful. Honestly, did you actually expect to gain anything by purchasing produce at the market and then selling it door to door?”
Marcus finally turned to face Alexander. The calculated coldness in his obsidian eyes sent a wave of fear over him. “Alexander, please. I’ll pay you back, I promise. I just need more time.”
“More time? More?” Alexander scoffed. “That’s what you said when the shipping business collapsed.” He continued in a mocking falsetto, ” ‘It’s just a string of bad luck, Alexander! I’ll bring it all back and my business will be greater than ever before!'” He raised an eyebrow and continued in his normal voice. “Or do I not remember your words correctly?”
Marcus’ back tensed, anger tingling down his spine. “I would have fulfilled the promise, if those blasted pirates hadn’t robbed my last ship.”
“But they did. And your bad luck followed you to that tiny hovel you now call home. I’d be shocked if I heard that you were successful at sweeping streets!” Alexander leaned against a column and crossed his arms over his chest. He assumed a faux sympathetic simper. “Tell me, Marcus, have you offended the gods? You may want to consider inquiring of the fish oracles.”
“The fish oracles?” Marcus hissed between clenched teeth. “Do you expect that the fat priest that watches the pool will actually be able to help me?”
Alexander snorted. “Even if you could afford the meat for the fish or the priest’s fee.”
Marcus shot Alexander a dirty look. “You assume that the fish actually have the power the priests claim they do.”
“You never know about these things. It’s a ceremony that has been held sacred for thousands of years.”
“Stop patronizing me!” Marcus shouted.
A cruel smile slowly spread across Alexander’s features. “You want m to stop patronizing you? Fine. You are in debt so deep that you will soon find yourself in debtor’s prison.”
“Debtor’s–” Marcus felt the blood drain from his face. Debtor’s prison was often a cruel place and if a prisoner couldn’t pay, they were sold into slavery. “But I have obligations. My daughters–”
“Will have to do without you if you don’t do something quickly.”
Marcus sank onto a bench that overlooked the flower garden in which Venus stood. “But they aren’t married. If I’m taken away, they’ll be reduced to begging. Or they’ll have to sell themselves into slavery.”
“There’s one more option. Why don’t you sell them to me?”
Marcus’ jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious!”
“Oh, but I am. Sell them to me, and I’ll consider your debt paid. You could live the rest of your life relatively free, so long as you don’t decide to engage in any more stupid business ventures.”
The world stilled. Even his heartbeat sounded distant, as though it was someone else’s. He hated himself for considering the offer. But his debt was a crushing load. To be free of it and not have to worry about his daughters’ futures? But to sell his own children… His stomach turned into a sour knot, and he had to concentrate on not vomiting. “You would forgive my debt? Entirely? But I owe thousands! If I were to sell them at the market in town, I couldn’t make a quarter of that!”
“Call it generosity.”
Marcus coughed. “You? Generous? You’re a business man, Alexander. Not a philanthropist.”
The corners of Alexander’s mouth twitched up. “My son comes of age in a couple months. He will need a gift to commemorate the occasion. And I have a debtor myself. Between the two of them, I’ll have to pay out more than you owe me. The way I see it, I’m making a bargain.”
Marcus swallowed the bile burning the back of his throat. Did the gods truly hate him so much? Would Artemis, the goddess of virgins, actually allow such an evil? “But they’re young! Old enough to marry, but still young enough to be… naive…”
Alexander walked toward an apricot tree. Plucking one of the fruits, he brushed away the excess fuzz. Marcus’ mouth watered. How long had it been since he had tasted good fruit, one that wasn’t half bruised and purchased by haggling?
“Speaking of your daughters’ youth, how old is your eldest?” Alexander asked. “Eighteen?”
“Nineteen!” Alexander’s eyebrows shot up. “So old and yet not married? Why, my daughters were both married at fourteen. My sister was married earlier! Tell me, is your daughter so ugly that no man will take her?”
Marcus furiously shot up from the bench. “Stop baiting me! Julia’s one of the most beautiful girls in Lycia! And I’m not the only one to say so!”
“So then the problem is that she doesn’t have a dowry. How do you plan on rectifying the problem?”
Marcus’ shoulders slumped as the fury in his stomach was replaced by intense shame. The past three years, he had been working himself to the bone to make enough to give his three daughters decent dowries. No man would take a wife without one, and the more honorable men were more expensive. Still, he hadn’t been able to save enough to marry off even one of them.
Tsk, tsk, tsk. Alexander shook his head. He took another bite and chewed thoughtfully. “That’s what I thought. But if you sell the girls to me, you won’t have to worry about providing for them. Really, it’s a gracious offer.”
“And what happens if I refuse your… ‘gracious offer’?”
Alexander tossed the apricot pit on the dirt beside the tree. With an evil grin stretching his features, he crossed the peristyle until they were nearly nose to nose. His eyes glittered as he crooned, “Then you’ll be in prison before you can say ‘Artemis’ and I’ll take your daughters anyway.” He pulled away from Marcus and walked towards the door that led to the street. “You have a week to decide.” He opened the door and looked at Marcus, a clear dismissal written on his face.
“So how exactly do you want me to help you?” Caius, Marcus’ second cousin and the closest family he had, asked.
Marcus couldn’t look him in the eye, fury mixing with his shame. Once he had been the rich enough that people would comes to him for help. Now he was the one grovelling. “I’m not asking you to pay my debts. Just let me borrow enough to satisfy Alexander for the time being. If he takes my daughters, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Nor should you,” Caius replied. “Julia, Accia, and Diana are all high born. To enslave them would waste them beyond decency. I don’t know why Alexander even thought of it!” After a moment of silence, Marcus glanced up at his face. It was grave, thoughts obviously flitting back and forth as he considered Marcus’ request. Marcus pursed his lips. Had the situation been reversed, he would have helped Caius! Why was he hesitating?
Marcus turned away, gazing at the scene around him. It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm and a cool breeze brought with it the scents of the River Myros. To the north, the mountain that Myra was situated against was green with life. Around him, the market place was a cacophony of noises and smells. Fine ladies looked at the latest fashions from Rome, the merchant proclaiming his silks to be the finest west of the Indies. From another booth came a savory aroma of fresh kabobs, filled from tip to tip with meat and vegetables. Poor matrons and head cooks alike walked from booth to booth looking for the best grocery bargains. They all looked so carefree, none bearing the terrible burden of bearing such a curse.
“Hey!” A girl screamed some steps behind them. She stood over a spilled basket; vegetables, fruits, a bag of flour, and broken eggs scattered around her. Her stormy eyes followed two laughing boys who were just disappearing into the crowd. Just about everyone ignored the ruckus as soon as their curiosity was appeased. A young man, well born by the looks of him, stooped to help her. Marcus raised an eyebrow. How odd! No man that he knew would set aside their honor like that to help a woman clean up such a mess. Thick brown hair and a beard framed his oval face. His eyes were kind as he looked at her, nodding sympathetically as she complained in a tear-accented voice.
“I just don’t see how I can,” Caius’ voice brought Marcus back to the subject at hand. “I have daughters myself who need dowries, too, so I can’t spare the amount you need. I’m sorry.”
Marcus suddenly felt ten years older. “Could you at least grant my daughters sanctuary so Alexander can’t find them?”
Caius shook his head. “He would eventually find out, then make it all the worse for everyone involved.”
“You’re right,” Marcus mumbled. The only thing worse than selling them into slavery would be to prolong the inevitable, earning them their master’s wrath in the process.
Marcus looked back at the scene behind him. The young man stood and helped the girl to her feet. He said something softly to her and handed her a few coins. When she walked away, the young man met Marcus’ gaze for a moment. The kindness in his eyes pierced his fear and warmed his soul for a fleeting moment before the man walked away.
“So what are you going to do?” Caius asked.
Marcus sighed. “I’m not sure I have a choice.”
“Diana!” Accia, Marcus’ middle daughter yelled at the youngest. “You didn’t sweep the floor! It was your turn today!”
“I didn’t have time. I was at the marketplace almost all day and I’m so tired now!”
“It’s fine, Accia,” Marcus waved a hand to silence the fight. He sat by the fireplace in their two-room hovel, staring at the flames. He hadn’t told them about his meeting with Alexander that morning. He just couldn’t summon the courage. But maybe this was better. Alexander’s men would come soon enough. Why destroy their final days of happy freedom?
“Papa?” Diana knelt at his side. “What’s wrong?”
Marcus felt a hand on his shoulder and looked into Accia’s face. Her mother had been unable to bear sons, and he had never appreciated his daughters until they were all he had left. Now, they were precious beyond words.
Guilt ripped through his soul. If he had been a better father, he would have liquidated everything but what was needed for the girls’ dowries. If only…
“Papa?” Diana asked again. Her brown eyes, just like her mother’s, danced in the firelight. What a hauntingly beautiful picture. Certainly, this was the stuff of nightmares.
A lump rose in his throat and he quickly swallowed it down. “I went to see Alexander today–“
The door opened and Julia breezed in. “Sorry I’m late. I had to–” She eyed her huddled family for a long moment. “What’s wrong?”
“I went to see Alexander again today.”
Julia paled, suddenly tense. “And?” She whispered.
“And I– I’m…” He paused. He couldn’t tell them. He just couldn’t. “I lost another business venture.” The lie sat heavy with him, but anything was better than the truth. All three girls’ faces fell.
“What does this mean for us?” Julia asked bitterly. “Will we have to leave here and live on the streets?”
“No,” Marcus replied quickly. Too quickly. Julia raised one eyebrow then squinted at him suspiciously. “That will never happen to you. I promise.”
Accia walked away. Marcus heard a liquid glugging as she filled a cup. Returning, she handed him a cup of wine. “Drink it, Papa,” she crooned gently. “You’ll feel better afterwards.”
As he stared into the cup, Diana squeezed his hand. “We’ll make it through this. We always do.”
The love from his children mixed with his guilt and sorrow, clenching his stomach until it hurt. How would they look at him when they were dragged away? Would they hate him? He shook himself. “Well, you three had better get to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Accia and Diana kissed him on the cheek and retired to the small bedroom they all shared. With a long, concerned look at him, Accia pulled closed the curtain over the doorway.
Marcus raised his eyes to Julia. She still hadn’t moved in the slightest. She watched him, her green eyes analyzing him.”You too,” he prompted.
Slowly, she approached him, lowering herself to the floor as Diana had done. “I thought you were going to Alexander to ask for more time to repay the debts.”
Marcus looked back at the cup in his hand and nodded mutely.
“And what did he say?”
Marcus shook his head. He had known better. This morning, she had asked where he was going, and a voice in his head told him to lie. But he hadn’t. Now he was paying the consequence of not relying on instinct. “That I am on a one-way track to debtor’s prison. Unless…”
Julia looked down at her hands and swallowed before looking at him again, fear and suspicion written on her face. “Unless what?”
She was intelligent. Maybe too intelligent. He ran his tongue over his dry lips. “I think you know.”
She gasped and shuddered. Her eyes were suddenly wild, the shadows caused by the fire made her look almost savage. He couldn’t stand that look. Couldn’t let her believe he agreed willingly! “Whether I go to debtor’s prison or not, Alexander will still have you. All of you. He made that very clear. I tried all day to find some way around it, but…”
She looked as though he had just slapped her. Silently, she laid her head on his knee and cried.
He laid his hand on her hair. “I’m sorry, Julia. I truly am. If I could marry you all off this week, believe me, I wou–“
Julia’s head lifted from his knee just as he turned to look at what caused the noise.A potted plant lay broken on the floor, a leather pouch laying on the windowsill.
“What was that?” Diana called from the bedroom.
Julia was at the window in a moment. She picked up the pouch, handling it gingerly. “Papa, there’s money in here!”
Marcus leaped to his feet, sloshing wine onto the hearth. He took the pouch and opened it, gold glittering in the firelight. He handed the cup to Julia and carefully dumped the contents of the pouch onto the windowsill. With shaking fingers, he began counting.
“Where did all that money come from?” Marcus jumped at Accia’s voice beside him. He hadn’t heard her approach.
“That’s what broke the pot,” Julia explained.
Diana ran up to them and squealed. “Is it enough to recover the money you lost today? Can you pay off the debts?”
Marcus finished counting. Hope flickered to life inside him. Who would have done this? Caius? “No, it’s not.” He turned to look at them. The hope and joy that had blossomed on their faces wilted. Marcus couldn’t help himself, though. He smiled widely. “But it is enough to provide a dowry for Julia!”
Joy exploded in the room. Both Accia and Diana squealed and hugged Julia. After they let go, Marcus hugged her. “Are you sure?” She whispered. “That money could go to Alexander. Maybe he–”
“I’m sure,” he interrupted softly. “At least one of my daughters will avoid Alexander next week.”
Julia buried her face in his shoulder and cried.
Go to The Benefactor, Part 2
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For Further Exploration
Lycian Cults and Important Deities by Lycian Turkey.com
Myra (Dembre) by Livius.org
The Roman Wedding: Ritual and Meaning in Antiquity by Karen K. Hersch
Marriage by Roman-Empire.net