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Isle of Shadows
By TRACY L. HIGLEY
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Tracy Higley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRhodes, 227 BC
Seven Days Before the Great Quake
In the deceitful calm of the days preceding disaster, while Rhodes still glittered like a white jewel in the Aegean, Tessa of Delos planned to open her wrists.
The death of her body was long overdue. Her soul had died ten years ago.
Ten years this day.
Tessa took in a breath of salty air and shivered. From her lofty position outside Glaucus's hillside home, she saw the city's torches flicker to life in the dusk below. Across the city the day's tumult at the docks slowed. The massive statue of Helios at the harbor's frothy mouth caught the last rays of the sun as it slipped into a cobalt sea. The torch Helios thrust skyward seemed to burst aflame, as though lit by the sun god himself.
He had been her only constant these ten years, this giant likeness of Helios. A silent sentinel who kept vigil as life ripped away freedom and hope. Painful as it was, tonight she wanted only to remember. To be alone, to remember, and to mourn.
"Tessa!" A wine-sodden voice erupted from the open door behind her.
The symposium had begun only minutes ago, but Glaucus was already deep into his cups. Bad form in any company, but Glaucus rarely cared. Tessa inhaled the tang of sea air again and placed a steadying hand against the smooth alabaster column supporting the roof. She did not answer, nor turn, when she heard her fat master shuffle onto the portico.
"Get yourself back into the house!" Glaucus punctuated his command with a substantial belch.
"Soon." She lifted her eyes to the western sky. "I wish to watch the sun god take his leave."
A household servant crept out and set two torches blazing. An oily smell surged, then dissipated. Harsh laughter, mingled with the tinny sound of a flute, floated from the house.
Glaucus pushed his belly against her back and grabbed her arm. The linen chitôn she'd taken care to arrange fell away and exposed her shoulder. She reached to replace it, but Glaucus caught her hand. He brought his mouth close to her ear, and she could smell his breath, foul as days-old fish. Her stomach clenched and she turned her head.
"The others are asking for you. 'Where is your hetaera?' they say. 'The one with more opinions than Carthage has ships.'"
Tessa closed her eyes. She had long entertained Glaucus's political friends with her outspoken thoughts on government and power. While his wife remained hidden away in the women's quarters, Glaucus's hetaera was displayed like an expensive pet with sharp teeth. Others believed she led an enviable life, but the years had stripped that illusion.
She stroked the polished filigree of the gold necklace encircling her throat. Glaucus had fastened it there, a gilding for his personal figure of bronze.
"Now, Tessa." Glaucus pulled her toward the door.
Her heart reached for the statue, clinging to her first memory of it, when Delos had been home and innocence had still been hers.
When she opened her wrists, she would do it there.
* * *
The andrôn, central room of the men's quarters, smelled of roasted meat and burning olive oil. Glaucus paused in the doorway, awaiting the attention of those who had curried enough of his favor to be invited. When the small crowd lounging on low couches at the room's perimeter quieted, he shoved Tessa toward the lamp-lit center. "Tessa, everyone! Making a grand entrance!"
His audience laughed and clapped, then returned their attention to the food and wine on the low tables beside them. In the corner, a young girl dressed in gauzy fabric blew thin streams of air into a small flute. Tessa's eyes locked onto the girl's. A private understanding passed between them that they were both objects of entertainment, and the girl looked away, as though ashamed to be seen thus. A desire to protect the girl surfaced in Tessa, a maternal feeling that of late seemed only a breath away.
Glaucus guided her to a couch and forced her to the gold-trimmed red cushions, then lowered himself at her right and leaned against her body, his personal cushion. He reached for the black bowl gilded with scenes of the gods in the center of their table and ladled wine into Tessa's goblet. He raised his own cup, still full, to the room.
"To Tessa!" His guests added their raised glasses. "Always the center of attention!"
Tessa's gaze swept the room. The moment was suspended—cups raised in her honor, insincere smiles fixed to drunken faces, lamplight flickering across tables piled with grapes and almonds and figs, and behind it all, the flute's lament.
Would she remember this night, even in the afterlife?
"To Tessa!" Shouts went round the room, wine cups were drained and thumped back to tables, and the party quickened around her. The smile she forced to her own lips was like wax, artificial and stiff.
Glaucus reached for her, but she pushed away the pawing hand.
He laughed. "It would appear my Tessa is a bit high-spirited tonight." His voice was directed to those nearby. "And what shall be done with a mischievous hetaera?" His thick-lipped smile and raised eyebrow took in the room and elicited another round of laughter. He nodded, then turned his attention to the man on his right, resuming a conversation whose beginning she must have missed.
"Your earlier objections to the naturalization of the Jews are noted, Spiro. But it can often be expedient to extend citizenship to the foreigners among us."
Glaucus's bulk obscured his listener, but Spiro's voice poured like warm oil. Underneath his smooth tones was the cold iron of anger. He was one of few among the strategoi to contradict Glaucus publicly.
"Like-minded foreigners, perhaps. But the Jews make it no secret that they despise our Greek ways. They disdain even our proudest achievement, our Helios of the harbor. They must be expunged, not embraced by weak-willed politicians who—"
Glaucus raised a pudgy hand. "You presume an authority not yours, Spiro."
"Only a matter of time."
Tessa lowered her chin to mask a smile. To hear someone defy Glaucus warmed her more than the wine could have.
Glaucus snorted. "Again you presume. The people of this island are too clever to choose seductive charm over solid leadership."
Spiro laughed, smooth and low. "Why, Glaucus, seductive charm? I did not realize you had noticed."
"Ha! Perhaps the women are affected, but it is the men who vote."
Spiro leaned forward, his eyes now on Tessa. "And we both know where men find their opinions."
Glaucus snorted again and swung his legs to the floor. It took several tries to raise his ponderous body from the cushions. "Get drunk, Spiro. Enjoy your delusions for one more night. But next week I sail to Crete, and I expect them to fully support my efforts." He nudged Tessa with a sandaled toe. "Stay where you are. I will be back."
Tessa watched him leave the room, and relief at his temporary absence flooded her veins. He expected her to travel to Crete with him next week. She had no intention of stepping onto the ship.
Spiro slid to her couch, an elbow on the cushion Glaucus had vacated. He was older than she, perhaps thirty, clean shaven like most, but wore his jet-black hair longer, braided away from his face and falling just above his shoulders. His eyes, deep set and darker than the night sea, studied hers. A smile played at his lips. "What are you still doing with that bore, Tessa? You could do better."
"One slave master is as another. The only better thing worth desiring is freedom." She was not truly Glaucus's slave in the usual sense, and Spiro knew it, but it made little difference.
He smiled fully and his gaze traveled from her eyes slowly down to her waist. He took liberties, but she had long ago become heedless of offense.
"That is what I like about you, Tessa. One never meets a hetaera who speaks of freedom. They are resolved to their place. But you are a woman like no other in Rhodes."
"Why should I not be free?"
Spiro chuckled softly and inched closer. "Why, indeed? Ask the gods, who make some women wives and give others as slaves." Spiro's hand skimmed the cushions and came to rest on her thigh. "If you were mine, Tessa, I would treat you as you deserve, as an equal. Glaucus acts as though he owns you, but we all know he pays dearly for your favors. Perhaps it is you who owns him."
Spiro's fingers dug into her leg, and his eyes roamed her face and body again. The attention brought neither pleasure nor disgust, a reminder that her heart had been cast from bronze. But a flicker of fear nipped at her composure. Spiro was like one of the mighty Median horses—raw power held in check, capable of trampling the innocent if unleashed.
A shadow loomed above them, but Spiro did not remove his hand. Instead, he arched a perfect eyebrow at Glaucus and smiled.
The expected flash of anger did not come. Glaucus laughed.
"First you think to rule the island, Spiro, and now you think to steal Tessa from me, as though she has the free will to choose whom she wants?"
Spiro shrugged and slid to the next couch.
Glaucus plopped down between them. "She will never be yours, Spiro. Even when I am dead, her owner will only hand her to the next man in line who has paid for her." He waggled a finger at Tessa. "She is worth waiting for, though, I can tell you." Another coarse laugh.
Something broke loose in Tessa.
Was it the vow she had taken while drinking in the sight of the harbor's bronze statue? The assurance that nothing she did could hold consequence? Or perhaps the ten years of bondage, commemorated this night with nothing more than continued abuse?
She rose to her feet, her blood like cold silver and her voice hardening to iron. At the proud lift of her chin, the room silenced, as though a goddess had ascended a pedestal. She looked down on Glaucus and a flame of hatred burned against her chest.
"May the gods deal with you as you have mistreated me, Glaucus of Rhodes. I will have no part of you."
In the silence following her haughty pronouncement, Glaucus giggled—a nervous little sound—and flicked his eyes left and right to his guests. He reached up and caressed her arm. "Your heart is not in the festivities tonight, my dear. I understand." His voice patronized, placated. "I will meet you in the inner courtyard later."
Tessa wrenched her arm free of his clutches and glanced at Spiro, chilled by the look in his eyes. She would not stay, though she hated to be dismissed. She glided from the room without a backward glance.
In the hall outside the andrôn, she paused. This house was a nauseating thing, yet the world outside was no more pleasant, nor safe. Not for her. She turned from the front door and moved deeper into the estate.
The hallway opened to a central courtyard, with corridors branching away like tentacles. A colonnaded walkway hemmed the courtyard, its roof covered with terra-cotta tiles. In the center, a blackened cistern gaped, and beside it sat a large birdcage, its lone inhabitant a black mynah with an orange beak. The bird chirped a greeting at her entrance.
Glaucus had said he would find her in the courtyard, but from the sounds of the andrôn's laughter, the party raged despite her absence. She should be safe for a few minutes. She crossed to the bird she had adopted as her own and simply named Mynah, and put a finger through the iron bars to let Mynah peck a hello.
Tessa's head throbbed, as it always did when she wore her hair pulled back. She reached behind, found the pin that cinched her dark ringlets, and yanked. Hair loosed and fell around her shoulders, and she ran her fingers through it, feeling the relief.
At a sharp intake of breath from across the room, she whirled. "Who's there?"
The voice was soft in the darkness. "I am sorry, mistress. I did not mean to startle you."
Tessa's heart grasped at the kindness and respect in the voice, the first she had encountered this evening. She put a hand to her unfastened hair. Somehow she still found it within herself to be embarrassed by this small impropriety.
The man took hesitant steps forward. "Are you ill, mistress? Is there something you require?" He was clean shaven and quite tall, with a lanky build and craggy face. Glaucus's Jewish head servant, Simeon.
"No, Simeon. No, I am not ill. Thank you." She sank to a bench.
The older man dipped his head and backed away.
Tessa reached out a hand. "Perhaps ... perhaps some water?"
He smiled. "I'll only be a moment."
She had disgraced Glaucus, in spite of his effort to laugh off her comments. How would he repay the damage she had done to him? His position as a strategos of the polis of Rhodes outranked all other concerns in his life, and he would consider her disrespect in the presence of other city leaders treasonous.
In the three years since Glaucus had paid her owner the hetaera price and she had become his full-time companion, they had developed an unusual relationship. While he would not allow her to think herself free, he had discovered her aptitude for grasping the intricacies of politics, the maneuvering necessary to keep Rhodes a strong trading nation. Power was a game played shrewdly in Rhodes, as in all the Greek world, and as a leader in this democratic society, Glaucus had gained a competitive edge when he gained Tessa.
Rhodian society had declared her to be a rarity. Beautiful, brilliant, and enslaved. The extent to which the decisions of the city-state passed through her slave-bound fingers was unknown to most. And in this she held a measure of power over Glaucus.
Perhaps it is you who owns him.
Simeon returned with a stone mug in his hands. He held it to her and covered her fingers with his own gnarled hand as she reached for it. "You must take care for yourself, mistress."
His informality breached the social division of their classes, but Tessa smiled at the small kindness, the concern in his voice.
"If you are not ill, Tessa, perhaps you should return to the symposium. I should not like to see Glaucus angry with you."
Tessa exhaled. "Glaucus can wait."
Another noise at the courtyard's edge. They both turned at the rustle of fabric. A girl glided into the room, dressed in an elegant yellow chitôn, her dark hair flowing around her shoulders. She stopped suddenly when she saw them.
"Simeon? Tessa? What are you doing here?"
Simeon bent at the waist, his eyes on the floor. "The lady was feeling ill. She requested water." His eyes flicked up at Tessa, their expression unreadable, then he slipped from the courtyard.
Tessa turned her attention to the girl, inhaling the resolve to survive this encounter. At fourteen, Persephone hovered on the delicate balance between girl and woman. Glowing pale skin framed by dark hair gave her the look of an ivory doll, but it was her startlingly blue eyes that drew one's attention. In recent months, as she had gained understanding of Tessa's position in her father's life, Persephone had grown more hostile.
She raised her chin and studied Tessa. "Does my father know you are out here?" Her tone contradicted the delicacy of her features.
Tessa nodded, choosing not to defend her actions.
"So he let his plaything out of her cage?"
She sighed and closed her eyes in a brief moment of pity for the angry child. The girl's mother had abandoned Persephone for the comfort of madness, and the daughter feigned authority in the house, perhaps to right this unspoken wrong.
At Tessa's silence, Persephone flitted to where Mynah cheeped inside her bars. She picked a leaf from a potted tree and held it to the bird. "But who am I to speak of cages?" She raised her eyes to Tessa. "We are all trapped here in some way. You. Me. Mother."
"Cages can be escaped." Tessa kept her voice low. She had never dared to offer Persephone wisdom, though her heart ached for the girl.
Persephone turned toward her, studied her. "When you find the key, let me know."
"Tessa!" Glaucus's voice was thick with wine and demanding.
Tessa turned toward the doorway. The girl beside her took a step backward.
"There you are." He waddled toward the courtyard's center. "I've sent them all away. I am sick of their company." He seemed to notice the girl. "Persephone, why are you not in bed? Get yourself to the women's quarters."
Tessa could feel the hate course through the girl as if it were her own body.
"I am not tired. I wished to see the stars." She pointed at the purple sky above the open courtyard.
Glaucus towered over her, sneering. "Well, the stars have no wish to see you. Remove yourself."
Excerpted from Isle of Shadows by TRACY L. HIGLEY Copyright © 2012 by Tracy Higley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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