It took Androkles the better part of an hour to realize that on this, the day of his greatest glory, his retirement day, his wife had not come to welcome him home from war.
Just a short time ago, when the army had crested the last hill and come into view, the cheering had been so loud and so long that the city walls rang like a bell, and half of the crowd lost their voices. He had been just as jubilant as anyone, keeping pace when the ranks started moving at a jog. He had cheered and slapped backs as his fellows found their families and the columns of soldiers began to dissolve into the crowd. But now he was left alone in that teeming horde of his fellow citizens, wondering why Della hadn’t come.
The feet of twenty thousand people and more had trampled the wildflowers nearly into paste. All had come dressed in their finest—embroidered robes, jewels and gold woven into hair, golden bracelets and rings. They had certainly not skimped on scented oils. The whole field smelled so strongly of fine oils and perfumes that it was enough to make him lightheaded. Even the slaves came dressed in better clothes than they would be allowed under any other circumstances; one could hardly tell them from citizens. Only the soldiers themselves stood dirty and ragged and plain, which bestowed on them a certain air of dignity the others didn’t possess.
Still holding on to a rapidly vanishing hope that some mistake had been made, he decided to make one more circuit of the field before giving up. Androkles imagined with a faint grin how if his old friend Athanasios were still alive, he would have been shouting the vilest of curses in sympathy, and gotten a fine from a jury for offending public decorum. Or Nikon, for that matter. Nikon would have stepped aside and paid a bunch of people to pretend they were there for Androkles. He’d done that once, in fact, when Della had had the temerity to show up alone.
But his old friends and every last one of his relatives, as far as he knew, had died, leaving him with no one to provide his due honor but Della. Last year, she’d hired youths from the docks to greet him. The previous year, she’d gotten a few non-citizens to dress up, and no actual Dikaians had noticed. This year, she had his retirement money to spend, four entire talents in fresh silver; he’d expected extravagance.
She was nowhere to be found.
Androkles walked slowly and deliberately, trying to keep his dignity. He had no hope of avoiding notice; he stood head and shoulders taller than anyone else. He kept meeting the same men’s gazes as he wandered, and they must surely have noticed his embarrassment. They’d be whispering about him for weeks. Mighty Androkles, veteran of a hundred battles, and look, his wife forgot about him! Some playwright would write a comedy about this and he would be laughed out of Dikaia, he was sure. The cloak on his shoulders grew hot in the afternoon sun, and his shield hung heavily on his back. And although he tried not to show it, the dishonor tore at his heart and made his eyes burn.
By the time his last circuit of the Field of Glory was done, the teeming horde had regained their voices from shouting the welcome. Now, the traditional choruses of welcome began to echo against the mighty walls of Dikaia. Celebration rich enough for the gods would last well into the night and possibly the following morning, and more Dikaians would be sleeping here in the field than inside the city.
It was all as perfect as a man could imagine, but this time, he could have no part in it. When this realization finally settled in to stay, his shame turned quickly to deep anger. Dikaia was his city, and these were his people, and he’d fought on their behalf for most of his life, and it was the first time he’d ever felt unwelcome here.
Shaming him in public to win an argument, which she had done? He could forgive that. Rudeness, like blaming him for their lack of children? He had tolerated everything, mostly out of habit. But this was offensive on an entirely different level. This was inexcusable. Only one option remained: hunt her down and divorce her immediately.
His anger burned hot and wild, churning and roaring in his stomach. It inflamed quickly, soon more than he could control as some of it radiated out of him, despite his focus on keeping it contained. The anger that did escape spread across the crowd like a miasma from a corpse, ruining the festive air anywhere it touched. People turned to peer in his direction, then quickly looked away with taut faces. Women stumbled, children fell quiet or started to cry.
His brow darkened, and he turned to march with purpose toward the immense gate. He could just picture his old mentor Diokles in the back of his mind, sighing to himself with a sad look on his face. But Diokles was dead, so he’d have to wait. Ghosts of memory were usually patient.
His Dikaians had decorated the gate so thoroughly for the celebration that the fine stone carvings were completely obscured by garlands of crocus and myrtle. The scent of the sacred flowers almost reached through his anger, but when one of the guards had the audacity to step in front of him, Androkles, and try to ask him a question, his fury redoubled.
“Are you …” the foolish, worthless youth had time to sputter before Androkles interrupted him.
“I am Androkles, son of Paramonos! I am the last Agapethaeid! This is my city! My forefathers laid the stones on that hill! You would dare bar me?” he shouted.
The young man faded beneath the heat of Androkles’s fury, and his fellows quickly pulled him away before he collapsed. They made way for Androkles to pass and sheepishly beckoned him onward.
With most of the citizenry out in the Field of Honor, the streets were far quieter than normal. A few slaves and servants rushed past carrying baskets of last-minute necessities for the night-long feasts, but no one else got in his way. He followed the road up the hill near the center of the city and passed within sight of the forum and assembly and the temples of the gods. The grand structures stood as glorious as ever, and the vibrant colors of the painted marble gleamed like jewels in a diadem beneath the afternoon sun. He walked past the home he’d been born in, and which his father had lost and where all his ancestors were buried, but he didn’t have time to stop there. Not yet.
The road carried him down the other side of the hill, beyond the best households and into the rough area near the dock where the poorest citizens lived side-by-side with foreigners and non-citizens, in small houses all built leaning against each other in a chaotic jumble. The shame of his family’s fall had never escaped him, not even after twenty-five years, and today it bit deeply, fueling his anger all the more.
When he finally reached the house he rented from a gracious benefactor who should have been a peer, he saw that there were no lights in the window, nor smoke above the hearth. Alone of all the houses on the entire street, it looked deserted. He paused, slightly disconcerted.
He did not come here to be sidetracked by mysteries. He planted the butt of his spear on the stone pavement and shouted to the closed door, “Della, you’ve gone too far! Come out here!” He was glad he still sounded sufficiently enraged for her to get the idea.
There was no answer. He waited in silence for a moment, which stretched on uncomfortably long. Long enough for him to start second-guessing himself. Had he missed her on the Field of Honor somehow? No, that wasn’t possible. Had anyone been looking for him, they would have found him; he stood out in a crowd like a tree.
He considered kicking the door down, but decided against it. It wasn’t his door, after all. Then it occurred to him that something might have happened to her, and in an instant his anger vanished entirely, replaced by worry. It hadn’t even occurred to him; every ruffian and seducer in Dikaia knew whose wife she was, and the nobility wouldn’t have any reason to notice her. But it seemed obvious, now that he thought about it.
He calmly opened the door, hoping not to find a corpse or two. Instead of a rotten body, however, Androkles was horrified to see that the house had been emptied, or nearly so. The wood furniture sat where he’d left it—the reclining-couch, the table, the desks. All of it furniture that the landlord had included in the rent of the house. Everything else, everything belonging to Androkles, was gone. The pot that had been his great-grandmother’s dowry no longer stood on a short pillar at the back of the front room. All the tapestries had been taken down, along with his father’s golden armbands that hung above the altar on the hearth. He found himself gaping, aghast. Every pot. All the food. All the lamps. All the clothing. His wife and her slave. Even the fire on the hearth, which should never, ever, go out, was dead. The house had been empty long enough that he couldn’t even smell smoke.
In such a small house, it didn’t take him long to peer into each room and see that they were all empty. Even the few worthless mementos he had kept from his dead friends had vanished—that stung. In his wife’s room, he found the only thing that had been left behind—a cheap parchment scroll tied with a string. It lay on the now-empty bedframe, missing even the mattress he had bought her with a hefty portion of her dowry. He looked around the room, trying to remember exactly what it had been like when he left.
It struck him then that he had always been trying to hold on to the past, hoping that something of what his family had been, back in its days of glory, would not be lost, but live on in him. Now, looking around this empty, darkened, house, he found himself feeling that even that little bit he’d hung on to had fled him, leaving him destitute and completely unmoored. That thought led to another: he was now poor. He was no longer a citizen. Unless he could find out where his money had gone, he was now simply a resident. He could not show that he had the means worthy of a voting man.
He clutched the scroll and tried to swallow the dread creeping into every thought. He turned and numbly walked back outside, where it would be light enough to read. He had to squint for a moment as his eyes readjusted to the warm afternoon sun, but soon he untied the scroll, opened it, and read,
To Androkles, written by Della. I am returning to the land of my fathers. For fifteen years I lay beneath you when you returned from war but you gave me no sons or even daughters. I am barren and lonely. I listened as you spoke of your dead fathers and your oath. I heard your promises of wealth and fortune. I met many Laophileans here in the lands your people arrogantly call the Glories, and have been well-treated by them. But I have no people here, nor any children, and I do not love you. I am taking your silver with me. I have sold the pitiful things that were your wealth. I consider this the price of the lies you told me, and the price of fifteen years of lonely marriage. Do not come after me. You will never find my people, and if you do, I will tell them to kill you. No one knows of this and I have freed Hetaria and sent her away. I did not tell her.
Androkles read the letter twice more before it really sank in. It was all truly gone. There had been no mistake. Everything was gone. He grew dazed and nauseous and soon had the need to vomit, which he did, leaning with one hand against the outside wall. There wasn’t much in him, but once his stomach was empty, he found it replaced with despair, which gripped him almost more strongly than he could bear.
He reflexively tried to analyze the feeling of despair in his mind, to quantify it somehow so it wouldn’t have so much power over him. He was no stranger to it, after all. He’d felt it when his father died, and a few years later when his mentor Diokles died, again when Euphemios died, and when Arkoleos died, and Nikon, and Thais. Despair seemed a perennial visitor at this point.
He tried to breathe deeply to calm himself, but he was unable to quell the miserable blackness gathering in his gut. For twenty-five years, he’d dreamed of this day. No, longer; ever since his father died he’d dreamed of the day of redemption, when the house of the Agapatheids would once again be honored and respected. The day when decades of suffering and travail ended, when his yearning became rejoicing. That should have been today.
Knowing he was about to lose his dignity, he stepped inside the house again and shut the door. Away from the gaze of any passers-by, he fell to his knees in front of the cold hearth and wept. The passion of it surprised him, and he could do nothing to resist it. The betrayal was too deep for him to push away, his loss too great.
After a time, it passed, leaving him empty and alone with nothing but wretched thoughts. He could never redeem his fathers now, not without his money. Their graves would never again belong to the family. And he could never pass on his lineage. The great Agapetheid clan, whose patron was none other than the revered Agapetos himself, would die with Androkles. It was too late to marry again. How could he afford another wife with absolutely no money? His fathers would be forgotten, their shades destined to wander the earth, lost and cold, forever. Now he would die with no one to honor him, and suffer the same fate.
Androkles knew he had never been overly pious, but he had always respected the gods and given sacrifice. In return, they only seemed indifferent and distant. Now, however, he realized that they hated him, and he hated them right back. They must have cursed his line. Too few sons, not enough farmland, and each generation smaller than the one previous. Until him, only son of Paramonos.
And in truth, he had no way to honor them and win back their favor anyway. He had no hearth for his own observances, and he was no longer a citizen, which meant the festivals and sacrifices didn’t apply to him. So why should he care about them? He stood and walked back outside, spitting on the ground before the doorway in an act of religious defiance. No one saw it.
Then he turned to look back up the hill at the City his fathers helped build, which was no longer his in the same way.
He watched the sunlight against the mighty temples and edifices, which the whole world envied. Androkles had given enough blood to fill a man ten times over for this city and its people. And it was a city truly worth protecting, ancient and sublime. Memory of its beauty had warmed his heart on innumerable long and weary roads, as it would anyone’s. Simply looking at it was balm for a troubled spirit.
After a time, when his mind had relaxed a bit and he was able to think, he decided that he had been giving up too early. What was he, if not a man of his City, son of his clan? There was nothing more to him. He had lived most of his life on the battlefield and always came home. Perhaps he simply had one last battle, different from the others.
He walked back up the hill, not quite sure where he was going until he found himself in front of the empty courtyard of his ancestral home. He took the familiar path around the north side, passing through the small garden the new inhabitants kept, and stopped before the old mausoleum and the graves of his fathers. The new owner was required by law to let Androkles come here, but never made any offerings himself. And indeed, his fathers had not had any offerings for months, and the offering-bowls were empty even of the coins he had left them last spring. But at least the area was clean. The new owner kept the area swept free of fallen leaves and debris.
The unblemished, bright marble markers stood where they had for centuries, some in rows, others flat on the ground with sculptures or metal vessels atop them. All tidy and orderly. He patted his clothing for something to leave as an offering, then took the last of his trail rations and placed them on the altar in the center of the graveyard. Then he sat back on his heels, looking at the altar and wondering what he should say. How much could his fathers see, he wondered? Did they know they were in danger of being lost forever? If so, they would certainly help him. And it wasn’t like they had many options left—he was the last of the lineage, and the shocks of gray at his temples and in his beard could not be ignored. At forty, he had outlived half the men of his line.
A warm ray of sunlight found his back and started heating up his long braid enough to make him sweat. The day was hotter than it needed to be, the sun brighter, even though he hadn’t noticed it until now. The gods, and Thuellos Sky-god in particular, were blessing the homecoming, overdoing it as if to spite him. His beard felt like a scarf across the top of his chest. He heard no other sound than faint echoes of celebration making their way up from the valley below while he considered what he should tell his fathers.
When he finally spoke, he did not say the customary prayers. He felt unworthy to call on them in that way. Instead, he said, “Sons of Agapetos, my fathers, there’s no prayer for this, so it’s not going to be very poetic. Sorry about that, but there’s nothing for it. My wife stole my retirement money, three whole talents, and the other one I’d saved all these years.” He paused for a moment to let that sink in. It was a tremendous amount of money. More than he could fully appreciate. If his fathers were listening, they would be horrified.
Androkles continued, “It was enough to buy back our home and lands and re-establish our clan, which is what I was going to do with it. But now it’s lost. Della stole everything and ran off, back to her homeland. She left this note.”
He took the scroll and placed it on the altar, just in case. “I’ve always honored you, even when I couldn’t afford it and had to go hungry. Now, either you help me get my money back, or that’s it for all of us. For the whole clan. It’s all over. Give me the wisdom and strength I will need. Please. Please.”
He almost didn’t say please, but they would know that he wasn’t a man who begged and pay attention. Actually speaking the word “please” aloud almost felt like his mouth was contorting into an unfamiliar shape. They would see how serious he was. He concluded, “I will return with our money. I swear it to Arkos Oathfather and to each of you, and to Agapetos. You watched me all those years in the army. The prize I fought for is stolen, but I’ll get it back. So don’t stop yet.”
Because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, he quit speaking. In the quiet that followed, he had expected some kind of reply, some indication that the spirits of his fathers had heard his prayer to them. But no rush of strength surged through him, and no cymbals or pipes sounded. No, the only thing that happened was that he realized he was serious. He found that what had been desperation in his heart had become resolve. He was going after Della.
He inhaled deeply and straightened his posture, throwing his shoulders back and looking around. Over the walls that encircled the household, he could see the City, vast and teeming and beautiful. Sharp, quarried stone, painted in every color. Gardens and markets and shops and gymnasiums. Everything to make a civilized man rejoice. And beyond the City walls, the rich and rolling farmland that was the life of Dikaia and many other cities besides; in the other direction, the ocean, which glittered in the sunlight, beautiful and treacherous.
Androkles enjoyed the view for a moment, trying to quiet the parts of him that were still terrified, that still believed he was estranged from his city. It didn’t take him long to convince himself of something he had known all his life: that the city Dikaia was his, and he was hers.
He turned to leave, but then he remembered the note, and for some reason leaving it there bothered him, even though he was done with it. The issue would never see a jury, after all, and no one would care about evidence. He reached down to take Della’s note from the altar, and when he did, the nagging sense of missing something continued to pester him, so he unrolled it to read once more.
Della, as far as he knew, had never learned to write. She was a mediocre weaver and spinner, too, and he’d assumed she was probably just bad with her hands. He looked carefully at the letters, trying to decide if a newly-literate woman’s unpracticed hand could have made them.
But the letters were too square, too perfectly formed. Even he couldn’t draw the letters this accurately, and his father had taught him how to write as a small child, before most citizens even began their education. There was no way she could have written this.
Which meant there were others involved. The thought struck him like a horse’s hoof, and the nagging sense of missing some detail immediately left him. He gazed down at the altar, wondering if his fathers had indeed tipped him off. The Priest Archon’s autumn chant included the line, “The dead speak more quietly than silence,” but he’d never thought about it before. He bowed deeply in the direction of the altar, then quickly looked around at the cemetery to see if he could see the outline of any shades. He couldn’t.
He left the cemetery and walked uphill to the center of Dikaia. In the Market, he visited every scribe he could find, asking if anyone recognized the handwriting. Most of them were slaves with no reason to attend the homecoming; they sat bored in their stalls, idly chatting with each other. But none of them recognized the writing, although they each politely told him of others he could ask. Androkles checked with nearly thirty different scribes before he had exhausted them all, at least the public ones.
He hadn’t tried the house scribes of the nobility, but there was no way under the swinging purse of Thuellos Sky-god that he was going to them. To ask if their scribe had written it would be to ask if they were involved, and without citizenship or any money, that could be fatal.
His options seemingly exhausted, he sold his leather belt and clasp and tied his skirt with a short length of rope. Then he bought a jug of pre-mixed wine and sat on a bench at the edge of the market to think. Suppose a noble house actually was after him? It had been a great deal of money, after all. Four talents were enough to inspire greed in even the wealthiest of the aristocracy. Or what if someone bore the Agapatheids some old grudge and wanted to prevent him? He would have no way of knowing what had happened unless he somehow ferreted out where the money had gone. And simply finding it wouldn’t be the end of the issue: he’d have to convince a jury to punish them and restore his property, and then withstand the ire of his enemies long enough to establish himself. None of those things would be easy.
With so few people around, the wide, flat paving stones of the market appeared uncomfortably bare; one seldom even saw the ground through the crowds that passed through here. The tents and awnings hung as colorful as ever, though, hanging limply in the windless sun. And the city slaves had no difficulty clearing the refuse, making the area smell better than normal. What if Della had gone over deliberately, and betrayed him on purpose? She could have split the money with some family in the city and gotten an escort.
Androkles drank deeply and stared into the pot, considering. He watched as wagons of goods came rolling up the hill to the market, bringing supplies for the slaves that would be sent once the celebrants ran out of whatever was at hand.
A Skythander patrol walked by, bright armor gleaming and decorated for the occasion, tails swishing in the air behind them. They reminded Androkles vaguely of cats, although they got offended if anyone said it. The beast-men from the east served as Dikaia’s neutral enforcers of law, and for several generations they’d managed not to get embroiled in politics. They were content to take their money, live well, and have even the noblest of Dikaian citizens try to stay on their good side.
Such clever men would certainly hear rumors, so Androkles stood and called after them, “Guards! Good masters, come here, I want to ask you something.”
The four beast-men turned around and walked back over to stand in front of him, bows across their shoulders and one hand on the quiver at their hip. Their posture that made it clear that anyone who displeased them would be stuck with fifteen arrows before he could blink. Androkles suspected they practiced the body language and posture when no one was looking.
One with dark reddish fur, tufts on his ears, and a stern face said, “Ah, Androkles, the big man of Dikaia. What do you need?”
Androkles blinked, a bit surprised that they knew him by name, since he was out of the city almost half of the year. “I wanted to ask after a rumor. Have you heard of anyone coming into a great deal of money lately?”
One with gray hair and fur replied, “Investigation is a thing of the courts. We do not seek out such things on our own. With respect, master, do not distract us unless you mean to share your wine. You know better.” Then he nodded at his fellows, his human face beneath smooth cat’s fur showing a stern but blank expression. They turned to leave, and Androkles let them depart without further comment. Their disregard for him threatened to stoke his ire, and knowing it wasn’t personal didn’t help. Not for the first time, Androkles wondered if a Skythander could pass for a Laophilean if someone held him down, clipped his ears and tail, and shaved him.
But now was not the time for a fight, and certainly not with armed Skythanders in the middle of the market, under sunlight. He sat back down on his bench and finished off his wine while he thought about his next steps. Ultimately, it came down to one question: either Della had gone north with his money like the note said, or she hadn’t. Either way, if he could find her, he’d find his money. He had to know whether she’d truly left.
The only way to do that would be to find all the gate guards, who were usually the sons of citizens and would be more talkative than the Skythanders, and ask if they’d seen her. Since he no longer had anywhere to store a pot, he left it empty on the bench for some beggar to take and sell. He made his way back down to the main gate, the one he’d come through in such bad spirits earlier. Thank the gods, the shift had changed and he didn’t have to face the youth he’d humiliated.
He handed one of the young men Della’s scroll and asked, “Good masters, take a look at this for me, and tell me if you’ve seen anything.” Then he stood there while they read it, unsure what posture he should take. He wanted them to get the idea that he was in dire straits, but not think him undignified.
He pretended to be distracted while they turned away from him and whispered to each other. That was a good sign, and he tried not to smile about it so they wouldn’t think he was mocking them. After a moment, they had finished their discussions and the shortest one, a particularly handsome young man with the beginnings of a good beard, answered, “Not sure what help we can be, Veteran. But Gorgias here says that about fifteen days or so ago, someone in a cloak and veil left the City with four Skythander bodyguards. They were carrying heavy packs.”
Androkles quickly replied, “How do you know it was fifteen days ago?”
The one named Gorgias, a blotchy but well-muscled youth of about eighteen, looked a bit embarrassed and said, “It was the day before my sister’s birthday. We made jokes about it. That’s why it stuck out in my mind.”
“I see,” said Androkles, considering. “And why don’t you know who was in the veil?”
“We don’t interfere with Skythanders, master, and there were four of them. We just assumed it was Skythander business and let them pass,” said Gorgias.
“Well, I can’t argue there, I suppose. Wait, why do you say ‘someone’ in a veil, not ‘some woman’? What man would wear a veil?” asked Androkles.
The short, handsome one replied, “That’s what the joke was about, master. The joke was that it was Gorgias’s sister’s betrothed. I still think it was a woman, but the others think she was moving a bit too directly to be a Dikaian woman, even a base one.”
Androkles nodded. That was all the confirmation he needed. That could only be Della. She’d always been a bit too masculine. Her parents had been resident aliens of some means, and they’d raised her poorly.
“I see. Can you tell me anything of the bodyguards?” he asked.
Gorgias answered, “They weren’t dressed like guards, although they had swords and bows. We’d only hope to recognize them from gymnasium, but we didn’t. They might exercise anywhere. That’s it, I’m afraid, master. Like Theklos said, we didn’t stop them.”
“Any idea where they might have been going?” asked Androkles.
“Not sure, master. Skythand is a long way to the east, and they should have gone out the other gate. But from here they might have been going north, if it was your wife. I’ve heard they have some trade with the barbarians, so there might be some up north. Who knows?” said the handsome one.
“What traders would know about Skythanders in the north, masters? Any ideas?”
“The only thing we get from the barbarians up north is furs, master. Might find a fur trader and ask him. But only the big furs, like bears and the like,” said Gorgias.
Androkles had known that, but he wanted to see if they knew something he didn’t. He said, “Very well. I’ll let you men get back to it. Thank you for the information.”
The rest of Androkles’s inquiry was almost fruitless. The only fur trader currently in the City had never personally been north, but he’d heard that the only Skythanders up there were a single tribe that traded with everyone along an east-west route, including the ones who rented their demon mercenaries. As such, being a good citizen, the man had never had any business with them, of course.
Androkles wasn’t sure how far to believe him, but it was the only lead he had. With Della’s parents dead, no one would have any idea where her homeland was except for her, and possibly that tribe of Skythander traders, if Androkles could find them.
Since he didn’t want to sleep in the empty, rented house that had been his home, he tried to find an inn where no one knew him. He was recognized, but he spent a bit of money and made up a story about renovations and hid the shame of his circumstance. The next morning, he sold his bronze helm, the only piece of armor he actually owned, to buy bread and figs for the road. With those supplies and a large pouch of money left over, he walked right back out the same gate he’d entered the City in, turning northward to follow the road that would eventually lead beyond the realm of the Glories.
Before he passed the final hill and Dikaia fell out of view, he stopped and watched it for a time, trying to burn the image of its beauty, the grandest city in the Glories, into his mind forever. The moment grew long, and longer, and finally he turned with dragging feet and a heavy heart and began moving again.
Androkles marched northward, alone.