|Publisher:||Tyndale House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The first time I climbed through a window and crept about secretly through a house, the moon sat high in the sky and I was running away from home. Home is perhaps an exaggeration. Unlike my brother Dionysius, I never thought of my grandfather's villa in Athens as home. For eight miserable years that upright bastion of Greek tradition had been my prison, a trap I could not escape, a madhouse where too much philosophy and ancient principles had rotted its residents' brains. But it was never my home.
Home was my father's villa in Corinth.
I was determined, on that moon-bright evening, to convey myself there no matter what impediments I faced. A girl of sixteen, clambering from a second story window in the belly of night without enough sense to entertain a single fear. Before me lay Corinth and my father and freedom. As always, waiting for me faithfully in uncomplaining silence, was Theodotus, my foster brother. Regardless of how harebrained and dangerous my schemes might be, Theo never left my side.
He stood in the courtyard, keeping watch, as I made my way down the slippery balustrade outside my room, my feet dangling for a moment into the nothingness of shadows and air. I slithered one finger at a time to the side, until my feet found the branches of the laurel tree, and ignoring the scratches on my skin, I let go and took a leap into the aromatic leaves. I had often climbed the smooth limbs, unusually tall for a laurel. But that had been in the light of day and from the bottom up. Now I jumped into the tree from the top, hoping it would catch me, or that I could cling to some part of it before I fell to the ground and crushed my bones against Grandfather's ancient marble tiles.
My fingers seemed fashioned for this perilous capering, and by an instinct of their own, they found a sturdy branch and clung, breaking the momentum of my fall. I felt my way down and made short work of the tree. My mother would have been horrified. The thought made me smile.
"You could have broken your neck," Theo whispered, his jaw clenched. He was my age but seemed a decade older. I boiled like water, easily riled into anger. He remained immovable like stone, my steady rock through the capricious shifts of fortune.
The tight knots in my shoulders relaxed at the sight of him, and I grinned. "I didn't." Reaching for the bundle he had packed for me, I grabbed it. "The gate?"
He shook his head. "Agis seemed determined to stay sober tonight." We both looked over to the figure of the slave, huddled on his pallet across the front door, his loud snores competing with the sound of the cicadas.
"I am afraid there's more climbing in your future if you really intend to go to Corinth," Theo said, his voice hushed. He took a step closer so that I could see the vague outline of his long face. "Nothing will be the same, you know, if you do this thing, Ariadne. Whether you fail or succeed. It's not too late to change your mind."
In answer, I turned and made my way to the high wall that surrounded the house like an uncompromising sentinel. Grandfather had made it impossible for me to remain. I should have escaped this place long ago.
I studied the daunting height of the wall and realized I would need a boost to climb it. By the fountain in the middle of the courtyard, the slaves had left a massive stone mortar that stood as high as my waist. It would do for a stepping-stone. The mortar proved heavier than we expected. Since dragging it would have made too great a clamor, we had to lift it completely off the ground. The muscles in my arms shook with the effort of carrying my burden. Halfway to our destination, I lost my hold on the slippery stone. With a loud clatter, it fell on the marble pavement.
Agis stirred, then sat up. Theo and I dropped to the ground, hiding in the shadow of the mortar. "Who goes there?" Agis mumbled.
He rose from his pallet and looked about, then took a few steps in our direction. His foot came within a hand's breadth of my shoulder. One more step and he would discover me. Blood hammered in my ears. My lungs grew paralyzed, forgetting how to pulse air out of my chest.
This was my only chance to break away. If Agis raised the alarm and I were apprehended, my grandfather would see to it that I remained locked up in the women's quarters under guard until I capitulated to his demands. He held the perfect weapon against me. Should I refuse to marry that madman, Draco, my grandfather would hurt Theo. I knew this was no empty threat. Grandfather had a brilliant mind, sharp as steel's edge, and a heart to match. It would not trouble his conscience in the least to torment an innocent in order to get his own way. He would beat Theo and blame every lash on me for refusing to obey his command.
The fates sent me an unlikely liberator. Herodotus the cat came to my rescue. Though feral, it hung about Grandfather's property because Theo and I had secretly adopted it and fed the poor beast when we could. My mother had forbidden this act of mercy, but since the cat had an appetite for mice and other vermin, the slaves turned a blind eye to our disobedience.
Just when Agis was about to take another step leading to my discovery, Herodotus ran across his foot.
"Agh," he cried and jumped back. "Stupid animal! Next time you wake me, I will gut you and feed you to the crows." Grumbling, the slave went back to bed. Theo and I remained immobile and silent until we heard his snores split the peaceful night again.
This time, we carried our burden with even more attentive care and managed to place it next to the wall without mishap.
I threw my bundle over the wall and stepped cautiously into the center of the mortar, then balanced my feet on the opposite edges of the bowl. We held our breath as the stone groaned and wobbled. Agis, to my relief, continued to snore.
The brick lining the top of the wall scraped my palm as I held tight and pulled. I made my way up, arms burning, back straining, my toes finding holds in the rough, aged brick. One last scramble and I was sitting on the edge.
Theo climbed into the mortar next, his leather-shod feet silent on the stone. I leaned down and offered my hand to him. Without hesitation, he grasped my wrist and allowed me to help him climb until he, too, straddled the wall. We sat grinning as we faced each other, basking in the small victory before looking down into the street.
"Too far to jump," he observed.
On the street, next to the main entrance of the house, sat a squat pillar bearing a dainty statue of Athena, Grandfather's nod to his precious city and its divine patron. At the base of the marble figurine the slaves had left a small lamp, which burned through the night. I crawled on the narrow, uneven border of bricks twelve feet above ground until I sat directly above the pillar.
As I dangled down the outer wall, I took care not to knock Athena over, partly because I knew the noise would rouse Agis, and partly because I was scared of the goddess's wrath. Dionysius no longer believed in the gods, not as true beings who meddled in the fate of mortals. He said they were mere symbols, useful for teaching us how to live worthy lives. I wasn't so sure. In any case, I preferred not to take any chances. Should there really be an Athena, I would rather not draw her displeasure down on me right before starting the greatest adventure of my life. She was, after all, the patron of heroic endeavor.
"Excuse me, goddess. I intend no disrespect," I whispered as I placed my feet carefully on either side of her, balancing my weight before jumping cleanly on the street.
Being considerably taller, Theo managed the pillar better. His foot caught on the goddess's head at the last moment, though, and smashed it into the wall. I dove fast enough to save her from an ignoble tumble onto the ground. But her crash into the plaster-covered bricks had extracted a price. Poor Athena had lost an arm.
"Now you've done it," I said.
Theo retrieved the severed arm from the dust and placed it next to the statue on the pillar. "Forgive me, goddess," he said and gave an awkward pat to the marble. "You're still pretty." I caught his eye and we started to laugh, half mad with the relief of our escape, and half terrified that the goddess would materialize in person and punish us for our disrespect.
"What are you doing?" a voice asked from the darkness, sharp like the crack of a whip.
I jumped, almost knocking Athena over again. "Who is there?" I said, trembling like a cornered fawn.
The speaker stepped forward until the diminutive lamp at Athena's feet revealed his face.
My back melted against the wall as I made out Dionysius's familiar face. "You scared the heart out of me," I accused.
"What are you doing?" he asked again, his gaze taking in our bundles and my unusual garments — his own cloak wrapped loosely about my figure, hiding my gender.
I swallowed hard, struck mute. I was running away from my mother and grandfather. But in escaping, I was leaving behind a beloved brother. Dionysius was Grandfather's pet, the son he had never had. I think the old man truly loved him. He certainly treated him with a tenderness he had never once demonstrated toward Theo or me. Grandfather would not stand for Dionysius leaving. He would follow us like a hound into the bowels of Hades to get him back.
My escape could only work if my brother remained behind.
I told myself Dionysius loved Athens. He fit perfectly into the mold of the old city with its rigorous intellectual pursuits and appreciation for philosophy. Athens suited Dionysius much better than the wildness of Corinth. I was like a scribe who added one and one and tallied three. I lied to myself, twisting the truth into something I could bear.
Dionysius had a more brilliant mind even than my grandfather, a mind that prospered in the academic atmosphere of Athens. But he had inherited our father's soft heart. The abrupt separation from Father had wounded him. To lose Theo and me as well would cut him in ways I could not bear to think about. Not all the glories of Athens or Grandfather's affection could make up for such a void.
I had not told him of my plan to run away, convincing myself that Dionysius might cave and betray us to the old man. In truth, I was too much of a coward to bear the look on his face once I confessed I meant to leave him behind. The look he was giving me now.
Theo stepped forward. "She has to leave, Dionysius. You know that. Or the old wolf will force her to marry Draco."
My brother shifted from one foot to the other. "He is angry. He will cool."
I ground my teeth. Where Grandfather was concerned, Dionysius was blind. He could not see the evil that coiled through the old man. "He threatened to have Theo flogged if I refuse to marry the weasel. One stripe for every hour I refuse."
"What?" Theo and Dionysius said together. I had not even told Theo, worried that he might think I was running away for his sake more than my own, and refuse to help me.
"He has no scruples when it comes to Theo. Or me."
"Will take his side as she always does. When has she ever defended me?"
I rubbed the side of my face, where the imprint of her hand had left a faint bruise, and winced as I remembered her iron-hard expression as she hit me.
Two days ago, Draco and his father, Evandos, had come to visit Grandfather. After drinking buckets of strong wine, the men had crawled to bed. The wind had pelted the city hard that evening, screaming through the trees, making the house groan in protest. The rains came then, sudden and violent.
I had risen from my pallet and slid softly into the courtyard. I loved storms, the unfettered deluge that washed the world clean. Within moments, I stood soaked through and grinning with exultation, enjoying the rare moment of freedom.
An odd sound caught my attention. At first I dismissed it as the noise of the wind. It came again, making me go still. The hair on my arms rose when it came a third time, a tortured wail, broken and sharp. No storm made that sound. My heart pounded as I followed that unearthly wail to a narrow shed on the other side of the courtyard. I slammed the door open.
He had brought a lamp with him, and it burned in the confines of the shed, casting its yellowish light into every corner. My eyes were drawn to the whimpering form on the dirt floor, lying spread-eagle. In the lamplight, blood glimmered, slick like oil, staining her thighs, her face, her stomach.
"Alcmena?" I gasped, barely recognizing the slave girl.
"Mistress!" She coughed. "Help me. Help me, I beg!"
I turned to the man standing over the slave, his face devoid of expression. "You did this?"
He smiled as if I had paid him a compliment. "A foretaste for you, beautiful Ariadne. I look forward to teaching you many lessons when you are my wife."
"Your wife? Get out of here, you madman!"
"Your grandfather promised me your hand in marriage. We drank on it earlier this evening." He stepped toward me. His gait was long and the space narrow. In a moment, Draco towered over me. He twined his fingers into my loose hair and pulled me toward him. The smell of the blood covering his knuckles made me gag. Without thinking, I fisted my hand and shoved it into his face. To my satisfaction, he staggered and screeched like a delicate woman. "My nose!"
"I beg your pardon, Draco. I was aiming for your mouth."
He rushed at me, hands clenched. I screamed as I stepped to the side, missing his bulk with ease. I had good lungs, and my voice carried with eerie clarity above the howling gale.
He faltered. "Shut your mouth."
I screamed louder.
The muscles in his neck corded as he hesitated for a moment. Then he lunged again, and I braced myself for a shattering assault. It never came.
Dionysius and Theo burst through the door, causing Draco to skid to a stop. My brothers seemed frozen with shock as they surveyed the state of Alcmena. Relief washed through me at the sight of them, and I sank to my knees next to the slave.
"What have you done?" my brother rasped, staring at the broken girl who could not even sit up in spite of my arm behind her back. "You brutal maggot. You've almost killed her."
Theo placed a warm hand on my shoulder. "Are you all right?"
I nodded, crossing my arms and trying to hide how badly my fingers shook.
Grandfather sauntered in, my mother in tow. "What is all this yelling? Can't a man sleep in peace?" He wiped his bristly jaw.
"Draco hurt Alcmena," I said.
My mother had the grace to gasp when she saw the slave girl, though she said nothing.
"He asked my permission to take the girl, and I gave it." Grandfather tightened his mouth when Alcmena doubled over and retched painfully. "You must have drunk too much, boy. Go back to your father."
Draco bowed his head and left without offering an explanation.
"He is crazed," I said. "He claims he will marry me. That you made an agreement with him earlier this evening."
"What of it?" Grandfather said, his voice hardening.
I expelled a wheezing breath. "You can't be serious! Look at what he did to the girl."
"The boy is a little hotheaded. Too much wine. Things got out of hand. Nothing to do with you. I have made the arrangement with my friend Evandos. It is done."
"Grandfather!" Dionysius cleared his throat. "I think we should ask Draco to leave the house."
"We shall do no such thing. If an honored guest wants to abuse your furniture, you must allow him," Grandfather said. "She is my slave, and the damage is to my property. I say it is of no consequence."
"She's hardly a woman. Younger than I am," I cried. "What do you think Draco will do to me if he gets his hands on me? You should be ashamed of yourself for even entertaining the notion of my marriage to such a man."
Calmly, my mother raised her arm and slapped me with the flat of her hand, putting the strength of her shoulder into that strike. I tottered backward and would have fallen if Theo had not caught me.
"Don't be rude to your grandfather. Now go to bed."
Furniture. That's what the poor girl amounted to in the old man's estimation. And I was not far above her in his classification of the world. In the morning, Grandfather insisted that my betrothal to Draco would stand. He expected me to honor his precious word by marrying Evandos's brutal son. My mother watched this tirade, eyes flat, as her father bullied me. She expected me to obey without demur as any good Athenian girl would.
With effort, I pushed away the memories and returned my attention to my brother. "Mother informed me yesterday afternoon that she had started to work on my wedding garments."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thief Of Corinth"
Copyright © 2018 Tessa Afshar.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Brilliant and beautifully written, with authentic research and strong characters, this story brings the land and times of the Bible to life and reveals more of ourselves than we might imagine.