This is a sneak preview of the unedited draft of A The Grain Merchant. Changes may be made after editing is complete.
Argolicus opened opened the door of the big stone house to memories and seventeen years of dust. He peered into the atrium in the early morning light as if childhood never left, hoping to hear his father’s voice. Dust motes floated above the stagnent impluvium, the pool in the middle of the hall, coated with green moss. No wonder his mother never came here. The house was full of his father, in spite of the dust and years. Workmen marched past him into the room in a group. The foreman started calling instructions. And men went off to other rooms leaving Argolicus alone in the room. The early August sun coming through the roof seemed to light up history. Argolicus business conversations in his father’s study and office and somewhere his mother’s laughter echoed from another room. Those sounds were in his head. He pushed them away as he strode across the atrium toward the big study. The big table, draped with a cloth, stood in the middle. It looked smaller than he remembered. Had it diminished with time? Or was he seeing it as a man rather than a boy? “Master,” Nikolaos, his boyhood tutor and lifelong companion, interrupted his thoughts. “I’ll prepare a room for you. Which one?” “The main bedroom. If I’m taking over my father’s house, I might as well move in as the master.” Nikolaos nodded and went off toward the rear of the big town domus, calling to one of the workmen to follow him. Argolicus wandered through the house. Town. I’m in town. No more leisurely country villa life. Time for him to act as a responsible citizen and throw off the pretence of running a country estate. The rooms filled with dust as workers swept, shook out cloths, and dusted alcoves and shelves. The workers covered their faces with cloth to avoid breathing the dust. Argolicus decided to go outside, reacquaint himself with the town of Squillace just miles from his country villa estate.. Now that the family town house was open and people were working, he wasn’t needed. When he stepped out of the vestibule into the street, the summer sun blinded him. He took a few moments to let his eyes adjust. When he blinked a man in magisterial robes, all silk, stood in front of him. Medium height, but with a carriage that implied importance. He met Argolicus’ blinking with unreadable eyes. His perfume seemed to expand in the summer air. “Sura,” he said in a resonant voice. “Caius Larcius Sura, surely you remember me.” Sura. He remembered a gawky, petulant adolescent, full of pretension and ready to latch on to anyone with a good name. “Sura, I do remember you. It’s been years. You look well.” His eyes took in the fleshed out face with a hint of jowls, squinting eyes that hinted at poor vision, and wrinkles beside his mouth that would soon turn into permanent scowl lines. The man looked ten years older than his early thirties. “Elected magistrate and chosen civil curator of Squillace just this year. Keeping the town in peace. At least I try.” He glanced at the street, where streams of people were filling the street headed in the direction of the harbor. “Lately, we’ve had this problem.” He nodded toward the people in the street. “We’re having a council meeting tomorrow. You should come. You’ve been up in the hills too long. It’s time you joined us.” There was no excuse for it. Argolicus had made a decision to enter town life, and here it was, an opportunity open to him on the very first day. One of the marching men in the street shouted, “What about us?” “I’ll be there. You can all fill me in on the unrest. I see the people are agitated.” “It’s about the grain harvest.” “What about it? It was a good year. No rain.” He thought of his own fields up at the estate where the rain harvest had ended just two weeks ago. The crop had been excellent. “You’re right about the harvest. But most of it is going north, to Rome and Ravenna. The estate owners and the grain merchants made money. The poor people made none. And since the grain is leaving, there isn’t enough for the people who don’t own land. Not that it would make a difference. They have no money so they can’t afford bread, even if there were plenty of grain here.” “When is the meeting? I’ll be there.” “At the normal hour. It’s good to see you back in town. I hear you went to Rome.” Argolicus nodded his head. “And served as praefectus urbis?“ Argolicus nodded again. This time a bit irked. If Sura already knew, why was he asking? Then he understood, an appointed magistrate of Rome was a much more powerful title than the elected magistrate in Squillace. “Yes, it’s true. But I retired to come back here. This is my home.” “Ah, it is beautiful here.” Sura waved his hand toward the ocean and then up toward the mountains. “People still remember your father. A wise man I hear. We need men like that.” Then, as if he were late for an appointment he said, “Well, I’m off. Good to see you back. I look forward to seeing you at the council meeting.” He headed up the street in a swirl of silk and perfume. It might be smaller here, but politics was the same. Men who jockeyed for position and measured others they met in relation to themselves. Argolicus sighed. Inside the house behind him a workman was singing as he cleaned. He closed the door to the house and started down the street in the direction away from Sura. It was still early enough for the shops to be busy. Cooks and slaves bartered with butchers, fruit sellers, and millers. A smith was hammering over an open fire while small boys watched. Restaurants open since before sunrise were feeding their last morning patrons. Argolicus followed the street until he reached the city center. The forum was crowded with more shops all selling wares to housekeepers and tradesmen. Citizens gathered in small groups ready to trade gossip. Behind the forum, the town council building loomed over portico columns in front of the entry door. Argolicus briefly wondered why Sura had gone in the other direction and wasn’t installed in the city council performing his duties. He had a sense that Squillace was a normal town, thriving on trade and hearsay. It was his town and he would find his place here. He turned around to head back to the house, his house. Walking back on another street, the stalls were busy with locals, but fewer discontents marched. His childhood haunts returned. There was the milk stall where they’d given him cream when he was a boy. But the man in the stall was not the same. “Argolicus? Young Argolicus? Is that you?” a voice called from across the street. “It’s me Rufus. Rufus the One-Eyed.” Argolicus would recognize that gravel voice anywhere. The best fruit in all of Squillace. “Rufus, yes, it’s me. A bit larger now,” he said, laughing. “What do you have today?” “Look at these figs. Oh, no, they’re not good enough. Hold on.” He bent down under the stall table and pulled out a golden peach. “The last of the harvest, but ripe and very, very tasty.” He handed the fruit to Argolicus. “Rufus, you’re still the same. Always a cheerful word for everyone and a surprise for the boys. You do still give treats to the boys, yes?” Rufus chuckled. “Of course. They grow up to be men who are willing to pay, just like you.” He chuckled and then asked, “Have you moved into town? Come down from the hills?” “Yes, I’m opening up the house. The men are there now blowing dust around, but soon it will be liveable.” “And Nikolaos? That feisty tutor, is he still with you?” “Nikolaos is still with me. Feisty as ever and just as wise.” Rufus nodded. He handed the peach to Argolicus. Argolicus asked, “Are you content here in this stall?” And before he could thing, he added, “Would you consider moving?” Rufus paused, “Moving?” Then his face broke into a smile. “You are inviting me to take up my old stall at your domus? “Yes, the stalls are empty. The house is open.” “I pay for my space here. Let me think about it,” Rufus said. “My old spot.” He grinned. “I’ll se what I can do. Who is your housemaster?” Argolicus realized he was not ready, and laughed. “I don’t have one yet. It’s time I found a staff for the house. In the meantime, you can talk to me.” Argolicus cradled the peach in his palm and started back to the house.
The afternoon August sun beat down on the slave market as Argolicus and Nikolaos entered the crowd. Some people were eyeing the slaves, others were bidding on the men and women on display. Several slave masters lined up their goods on platforms proclaiming strength, or youth, or beauty depending on the slave. Suddenly Nikolaos stopped as if frozen. Argolicus turned to him. “What is it?” “Joram!” Nikolaos said under his breath, nodding his head toward the farthest platform. “He is not a good man.” The slavemaster, large man whose powerful muscles are now hidden by the flesh of overindulgence was describing a pubescent girl standing naked in the blazing sunlight. “…she will grow into a delightful companion or a sturdy worker.” He brought his arms down defining imaginary curves. “Turn around. Let them see all of you,” he said to the girl. Tears ran down the girl’s cheeks as she turned. An involuntary shiver ran down her back as she turned on the platform. Argolicus saw nothing different about this slavemaster from the others but he saw Nikolaos’ distress. “There are plenty to choose here. We don’t have to deal with him.” “He was…,” Nikolaos started. He tried again, “When your father bought me. It was from him.” Argolicus thought of the young Nikolaos, imported from Greece. A 15-year-old in the large man’s stable of slaves. “I was treated well,” Nikolaos said as if reading his master’s thoughts. “I was educated and valuable. But girls like her had rough treatment with only enough food to keep them alive. They slept crowded in tiny rooms. Look at that girl there, probably fresh from the farm. The way things are these days her parents probably sold her to make ends meet.” “We’ll find a housemaster, a doorman, and a cook from someone else,” Argolicus said.