None of the cold, unrelenting wind that usually accompanied an early afternoon in the garden. Finally, a cool breeze. Tending the flowers in his uncle’s garden had come to be Marcus’s favourite pastime. His leg was almost fully healed, and though the activity was strenuous if he wasn’t careful, he was never left entirely alone; if Esca was not there with his disapproving frown and level words of warning, the chastising words Sasstica would sensationalize with her flour-covered spatula would dissuade Marcus from enjoying the use of his hands too much.
“Where is your master?” a voice demanded, gutturally.
Startled, Marcus blinked and turned to face the intrusion to his thoughts. A man, middle-aged, short and stocky, in a white tunic and toga, stood before him. Marcus disengaged with the man’s hooded eyes, and noticed the leather bag that hung from his shoulder.
“Where is your master? Are you dumb, slave? Or just Greek?” the man asked, thin lips curling in distaste.
Marcus tilted his head. “Hmm”.
“Before I forget I am a guest and do what I’ll not regret, answer me!” the man raged, face plumped and red, the corners of his thin lips twitching in time with the animosity in his eyes.
“My apologies, sir”, Marcus said cheerfully. Stretching with a deliberate slowness to his full length and demoting the importance of his leg’s stiffness, he happily met the man’s stare.
He was still painfully thin; and, now, with the soil striping his skin and shreds of grass in his hair, curly and dark, Marcus was being assumed to be a slave. He had been growing his hair, letting himself go to come back together.
“Master Aelianus is not yet back,” Marcus replied dutifully. “Yes, I am Greek!” Marcus simpered; then, soberly, “For my master’s knowledge, who are you, sir?”
“His fellow magistrate”, the man rushed. “I’ve been advised by my physician to get to know my colleagues before I work with them. Your master is expecting me. Is he not here?”
Marcus pressed, then licked, his lips. “My master is on an outing with Lady Perfidia— She is his neighbour,” he smiled; then, fearfully, “I hope she is feeling better!”
“Why?” the man exclaimed. “What’s the matter with her?” The man shook his head, the dewlapped skin of his neck quivering with the movement.
“Oh… I don’t know if it’s my place to say…” Marcus admitted, lowering his head to the soil.
“Tell me what you know! It- It’s your place to answer my questions!” the man spluttered, face growing redder still.
“Oh, now that you give me permission, sir”, Marcus said, eyes looking up at the man from under his lashes. “She fainted this morning, sir”, Marcus said in a rush, facing the man with wide eyes. “We- we all heard loud screaming! Long and high-pitched. The poor mistress was terrified. The whole household rushed to her! She looked like— She looked like— Like—"
“Like what, you stupid boy?” The man shrieked, dropping his bag.
Marcus parted his lips. “Like she had seen a ghost”, he hissed.
The man paled. He parted his lips to speak, and his eyes grew wider so that their wrinkled lids were hardly exposed. The man sealed his lips, and parted them again.
“Wh-what did she see? What ha- happened to her?” he whispered, wide eyes fixed on Marcus’s.
“She said she saw… a ghost,” Marcus said.
The man’s face contorted. He parted and sealed his lips, and after a while of this, Marcus spoke. “Would you like me to sit you on one of Master Aelianus’s couches, sir?”
“I can tell you’re anxious by your eyes!” the man shouted. “I must hear more of this— No!— Yes!— I— I must— My physician told me to face my— But first, water! Fetch me water! Yes, my physician told me to drink water— To keep— Keep—”
“Calm? Of course, sir.”
As Marcus made to leave, the man flapped his hand frantically. His lips were parted.
“Wash your hands first!” The man gasped. His cheeks were reddening. “I won’t have dirty slave hands spoiling my health!”
Marcus grinned, nodded his assent and left. When he returned, the man was clenching and unclenching his hands. “Do you not want me to seat you?” Marcus whispered, behind the man’s shoulder.
The man shrieked, jolting forwards until he was almost in the soil.
Marcus extended the hand with the cup of water in a swift movement. “Your water, sir”. “As you can see, my hands are clean now. All the soil if gone.”
The man took the cup hesitantly, but drained the water in large gulps.
“Wh-where is the young mater?” the man gasped.
Marcus tilted his head. “The young master?” he asked.
“The master’s niece! Marcus, I believe he’s called!” The man shouted. “You dim slave! Must I explain everything to you?” The man’s cheeks were red as the cyclamen growing from the soil. Marcus let his gaze fall to them, then back to the man.
“Ah, the young master is in Rome! We were expecting him back last week. It seems his trip is taking longer than we anticipated.”
“I— I was expecting him here”, the man pouted.
“The young master is full of surprises, sir”, Marcus admitted. “His uncle, my Master Aelianus, finds him distastefully unpredictable and… what’s the word? My Greek brain can’t recall—Ah, yes. Unruly.”
The man blinked. When the man’s lips parted, Marcus asked, “Did you still want to enquire about Lady Perfidia, sir?”
“Yes!” The man shouted, flinging the earthenware cup. It landed by Marcus’s feet, and shattered. “Did she see a ghost? Did— Did she really see a ghost?”
“Oh, I can’t say, sir. Lady Perfidia says she did. If…”
“Oh, stop with that pausing, you silly slave!” the man moaned. “Speak!”
“If she did not, sir,” Marcus began, biting his lip, “If she did not, it was the grief.”
“The grief?” the man said in a rush. He grew pale again.
“Yes, sir,” Marcus said somberly. “A terrible something happened as soon as the young master left for Rome. It has become known by the household as The Great Tragedy.”
“The Great Tragedy?” The man gasped.
“Yes, sir,” Marcus whimpered.
“And— And wh— What is that?” the man asked, eyes wide and darting around, as though in anticipation of missiles of some kind.
Marcus sighed and shifted his weight. “Master Aelianus has a dog, sir,” he began, looking frankly in the man’s wide eyes. “I say Master Aelianus has a dog, sir, because it is the master’s demand. Procyon—” Marcus paused, pressed his hand to his chest and closed his eyes. When he opened them a few breaths after, the man’s face was pale, and thin lips were parted and quivering. “Procyon, Master Aelianus’s dog, was lively and spirited— and Master Aelianus is very good, very fond, of him. Procyon would be free to run outside, and enjoy his life.” Marcus paused, and looked at the soil.
“I— I didn’t tell you to stop talking!” the man shrieked.
Marcus continued to stare at the soil.
“You are a slave! You have to do what I say! Speak!”
“Oh, because you control, I comply,” Marcus simpered at the ground. Abruptly, he flung his head to meet the man’s wide-eyed stare, noticing the desperation amidst the anger in the man’s eyes. “Procyon is a wonderful dog!” Marcus grinned. “One day, a few weeks before the young master’s trip to Rome, Procyon bounded happily away, to the woods.” He paused. “He never came bounding back.”
The man let out a strangled gasp.
“His body was found a few days after, struck by an arrow and hidden in the shrubbery.”
“I— This— This is Calleva!” the man said. “This is Calleva!”
“Yes,” Marcus said, softly. “This is a quiet town, with a good reputation. The household was surprised and devastated.”
“There’s a killer on the loose! On the loose! There’s a killer!” the man shrieked, quivering. One of his wide eyes had burst a vein.
“Perhaps not, sir. Perhaps the dog was killed accidentally by a hunter.”
“No,” the man growled. “Stupid slave! The man spat at Marcus. The spittle landed on the shattered cup.
Marcus lowered his head and abruptly tilted it sideways. “Sir, would you like some water?” he asked, arranging his head so that he could face the man.
“No! No, I— I don’t want water! I want peace! I was told this is a peaceful town!”
“Would you like me to stop explaining, sir?”
“What are you talking about, you stupid boy?”
“You don’t want to know what Lady Perfidia’s role is in this, sir?”
“Yes!” the man shouted, pointing at Marcus and wagging his finger.
“Lady Perfidia and her husband have been visiting Master Aelianus’s household for many months. They are now great friends. Procyon and Lady Perfidia are great friends as well. After her husband was murdered—”
“What?” the man shrieked. “Murdered?”
“Yes, sir. Her poor husband was found, sadly, dead in the woods of a head wound.”
“Oh, gods!” the man moaned. “It— the same man who killed the dog! That’s who killed the husband!”
Marcus cupped a hand to his mouth. “After her husband was murdered, Lady Perfidia has not been the same… Of course, everyone who loses someone they love is never the same after,” Marcus said eventually, pitching his voice low. “But, in her case, she has not accepted her husband is, sadly, dead. She believes him to be alive, and now— Now the Lady has told Master Aelianus that she heard Procyon barking— That she heard him barking… in the atrium.”
“Just out there?” the man exclaimed, jumping. His bag fell to the ground and tipped over into the soil.
“Yes, sir”, Marcus said.
The man started to swivel his head around wildly. Then he rotated where he stood, stuttering.
“Procyon always loved to chase his tail!” Marcus sniffled; then, soberly, “Lady Perfidia says she saw the dog come bounding into the garden. Perhaps it’s all to do with her husband. I don’t know, sir, for I am a simple Greek, but her husband was joyous around Procyon. Procyon, you old dog! He would yell after him. You see, sir, Master Aelianus, Lady Perfidia and her husband have taken to supervise Procyon’s trips to the woods.”
“Here?” The man bellowed. “She saw the dog come bounding here?” His wide eyes were red-rimmed, and the one with the burst vein was almost overcome by the blood.
“Yes, sir.” Marcus said. “In fact, she fainted right where you are standing.”
The man gasped.
“After Procyon leapt upon her, sir. That’s when she fainted.”
The man gasped, clutching a splayed had to his chest. He jumped away from the spot, and ran into the atrium. “You asinine slave!” he called after him. “Why didn’t you say that before? Oh, if you were my property, I would kill you!”
Marcus followed him into the atrium. He walked slowly.
“Would you like some water, sir?” Marcus asked.
The man was interrupted by a series of barks. They were loud, sounding close, and echoing. The man was immobilized, but when he acknowledged the look of horror on Marcus’s face, he heard the loud thumping that could only tell of movement, keen and unchecked.
The man and Marcus heard a loud chortle reverberating through the atrium. “Procyon, you old dog!”
Marcus widened his eyes and pointed behind the man with a loud, strangled gasp.
Procyon, proud and lively, was bounding in straight for the garden. Just after, Marcus and the man could see the owner of the voice: a man in a white tunic and toga, trailing behind Procyon. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, and a large circle of blood was seeping through.
Marcus’s man screamed. Lady Perfidia’s husband was stunned into halt. The man screamed again.
“Well, I’m not sure whether or not I should be offended!” Lady Perfidia’s husband asked the man, good-naturedly. “Is it that you’ve never seen a wound or a wound on an extremely hideous man?”
In the space of a few breaths, the man was outside of the household. Lady Perfidia’s shriek indicated to Marcus that he had almost driven into her in his escape.
“Wait!” Marcus shouted. He started to make his way into the garden for the man’s bag, stepping over the shattered clay cup to do so. Procyon was splayed in his spot of the garden, tongue lolling out of his mouth. When he walked back into the atrium, he noticed his neighbor’s acerbic stare. “I take it you haven’t forgiven me, then?”
His words were met with a frown.
“And you still won’t speak to me?”
No reply, and Marcus walked out to the entryway. “Was that Canis, Marcus?” his uncle asked. “He almost knocked me over!” Lady Perfidia added.
“Indeed, it was,” Marcus said, to his uncle.
“I wasn’t expecting him until tomorrow!” Uncle Aquila said.
Marcus shrugged. “He was keen to meet you. Keen to be a part of Calleva, the peaceful town.”
“Why did he rush out of here like he’s seen—”
“A ghost?” Marcus supplied.
Marcus raised his hands and widened his eyes. “Or a dog!” he chuckled. “Procyon. The man admitted he is terrified of dogs. He wouldn’t stop talking about his fears and his physician, and his physician’s advice. Truly, he was such a narcissistic bore!”
“I’ll be back soon,” Marcus said after a few breaths of silence, nodding at his uncle’s unconvinced expression.
“Lady Perfidia,” he said, dipping his chin. She flung her head away from him.
Marcus’s unwanted guest was a mere spot at the visible end of the road by now. “Do come back soon!” Marcus shouted after him, holding up the bag. The breeze draw his attention to the world around him. There was no birdcall; no sound of leaves rustling; no muted voices. There was silence, and peace. Marcus started to laugh, softly.
“What have you done now?”
Marcus found Esca was standing beside him. There was an amused glimmer in his eyes.
“Sometimes, shattered earthenware is a good thing,” Marcus exhaled. “A really good thing.”
Esca huffed, and they fell in a pleasant silence. The breeze cooled Marcus’s skin. He had not previously realized it was hot to the touch.
“You’ll tell me later, then?” Esca asked.
“Of course”, Marcus said, mellow.
“I have most of the day off, and I miss the action,” Esca observed. “You like the trouble,” he stated.
“Only if it’s absolutely necessary,” Marcus said.
Esca shook his head, smiling. “The skies are changing again,” he said, looking upwards. “It’ll rain, a light mizzle, soon.”
“Ok,” Marcus said. “Now I’m feeling my bad leg”, he added with a grimace.
“All the more reason to use the bath”.
“Why— Why do you think I wanted to use the bath?”
“You smell terrible. Plants. Sweat,” Esca said, pursing his lips as he shrugged.
“I look terrible,” Marcus laughed. “I look terrible,” he whispered.
“It’ll wash,” Esca said, placing his hand gently on Marcus’s bad shoulder. “This is a terrible that will wash.”
Marcus used one of his nails to scrape some of the dried soil on his arm. He flung it in the direction his unwanted guest had taken to flee, and looked at Esca. “Yes, it will.”