Kyros scowled as he watched Serra play with her cousins. He should have been happy to see his niece returned, but truth be told, Serra was nothing but trouble for him. Her prettiness did little to make up for her detractors. Notably that she was not pure. And that even dishonoured, she had not produced a child. Dishonoured, speaking and acting in foreign ways, and possibly infertile, Serra was possibly the least desirable free woman in the city.
Nor would the girl help herself. She spoke as a young child does, having not spoken their tongue since she was that age, and people took her for a dimwit. And when they spoke loudly at her, she went into a temper, and refused to talk at all. And she insisted on keeping her slave name, Sesserrae. She must have been stammering hard when they asked her her name, for them to come up with that. It was ridiculous, but the girl refused to yield. Kyros feared having her on his hands forever.
It was all the fault of this Timotheus, and Kyros was determined that he should make it right.
Timo walked to the lounging room to receive his visitors with barely concealed fatigue, hardly hearing what Syros told him as they walked.
"He is recently arrived from Selenica. Straight off the boat, in fact, I believe. He would tell me nothing of what he wanted save that he had important business he could only conclude with you." Syros could see Timo was not picking up on the possible importance of this visit. Or perhaps he had, and didn't care. It was hard to tell with Timo these days; nothing seemed to stir him. Indeed, Timo found himself understanding his father more and more as the days went by.
"Thank you, brother," Timo sighed, "I'm sure-" but then he entered the visitor's lounge, and what he saw there stopped that thought in its tracks.
"Kyros," he breathed as Kyros rose to greet him.
"Yes," Kyros replied, a little puzzled, his accent heavy, "You know who I am?"
Timo nodded, pale, but standing firm.
"Then you know why I am here?"
Timo swallowed convulsively but nodded again. "To secure retribution for your niece's dishonour." He said very quietly. Kyros hesitated, then nodded once.
"Her… treatment has ruined her prospects in Selenica-" Kyros began, but Timo interrupted, not wanting to hear the details when he had already admitted his guilt.
"I understand," he murmured, kneeling before Kyros, head bowed, "and the retribution accepted by the courts is the death of the guilty party. You are perfectly entitled to take my life."
Kyros stared in silent amazement at the young man calmly proffering up his life before him, and eventually touched his shoulder.
"The alternative is for you to agree to marry her," Kyros murmured, still a little shocked at Timo's actions, "Then there is no crime."
It was Timo's turn to be shocked, and he stared at Kyros unashamedly.
"I take it you do find her pleasing enough, to have… dishonoured her for over a year."
The young man was staring at him still, and Kyros began to wonder if he was quite right in his mind.
"What does she think of your proposal?" Timo asked a little faintly. Kyros almost grunted in irritation. What did it matter what she thought? She was in dire need of a solution and here was one for the asking. How could she refuse? Why would she? But Timo would not break his gaze, and eventually Kyros sighed and led him to the street.
It was no idle question for Timo though. He had last seen Serrae swimming across a dark ocean to get away from him. He couldn't understand why she would come back to him when she had been so determined to get away. And he needed to know, before he could answer Kyros.
Serrae sat and waited in the cart, shifting restlessly on her cushions, furious to be back in Athens. What was the point of all her efforts if she was only to be back where she started? Back in the same city, with the same purpose: to be hired out to whoever would have her, only forever this time. She was even being marketed to the same man. What was the point? Save her own humiliation. Timo would never see her as a wife. She could only ever be a slave in his mind.
But part of her longed to see him. Living with her uncle had been hard to get used to. The language that she only half remembered, their foreign ways. But, strangely, hardest of all was sleeping by herself. She had grown used to Timo's warm presence beside her, especially those last few weeks. She found she could not find sleep alone in the cold bed. She had tried to crawl into her sister's bed, but Anaitis could not understand why Serra would bother her thus when Kyros had been generous enough to give her her own bed all to herself.
Serrae envied Anaitis, that she never thought to question her place in the world, accepting all that was given to her without ever worrying whether or not she deserved it. At the same time, Serrae was disgusted at herself that these remnants of her slave life were intruding into her freed one, and concentrated hard on forgetting them. But she was unused to the ways of free households, and knew by the growing displeasure of her uncle that she was not getting it right. She was a fish out of water, wherever she landed.
Then she saw Syros jogging through the garden to speak to her, and cleared her troubling thoughts. Whatever she thought did not matter. She was here to be humiliated, and when it was done, they would go home, and nothing would change.
"Will you marry him?" Syros asked straight out, anxious and out of breath.
"He could not see me as a wife before, why should anything have changed now?" she replied, her voice heated. Free men had been known to marry slave girls. Timo had never even thought of it, she was sure. Besides, Timo was much too young to be marrying.
"Why do you not go to speak with him?" Syros asked, frowning.
"Why does he not come to speak with me?" she replied, frowning straight back, "does he run from his shame?"
"Serrae!" Syros groaned in frustration, "He thought Kyros was coming to kill him, and he just waited like a lamb at slaughter. He's not running from anything. I had to force him to come home, you know. He wanted to sell himself to repay his debt to your family."
She did not react, but Syros knew that did not mean she didn't care.
"He has barely smiled since you left. Nothing pleases him, not his mother, not his siblings-"
"And not me by the looks of it, either," Serrae noted, watching Timo and Kyros approach along the path, the slower but more proper route than the short cut Syros had taken. Timo's face was drawn and quiet as he gazed at her.
"It is like he was before he met you –only worse, and now his father is dead and he must shoulder the running of the businesses too." Syros felt secretly this was a blessing in disguise, for without the daily demands of the business he feared what Timo would do. "Serrae, please - you make him happy. You make him happy when nothing else can."
"It's always about him!" she spat in irritation.
But the others were within hearing distance now, and they fell silent. Timo came right up to Serrae's feet, but made no move to touch her. Nor did she make any move toward him.
"Your uncle proposes a marriage," he began, his voice low and quiet.
"Tell me what you think of your uncle's proposal."
It was a different matter entirely to say to his face the things that hissed around in her head, and she turned away, so he wouldn't see the emotions that twisted her countenance.
And in that, Timo had his answer, and turned away too. If she could not even look at him, how could she live as his wife? She would hate him, and they would be miserable.
"I can not agree to your proposal," he said to Kyros, his voice even lower. Kyros' glance shifted back and forth between the two of them, then he frowned and drew his sword.
"If you will not honour her in this way, I must have her honour by the other."
Timo dropped to his knees before him and bent his head, awaiting the blow quietly.
"No!" Serrae cried suddenly. She struggled from the cart and ran to him, folding her arms around his precious neck and pressing her face to his dear dear head. Was he mad? Why did he kneel so quietly, like a slave before his master? Where was the Timo that had fought for her in brawls in the symposium? That had struggled so long and so hard to bring his father and his family peace, who had saved them all from the shipwreck and then gone back for more, refusing to give in while there was any hope? But what Timo would do for others was quite different to what he would do for himself. And above all, he must do what was right.
"Timo, don't," she pleaded softly, fighting tears.
He pulled her away gently so he could look at her.
"It is the right thing to do, kallos. This world has no more need of me."
She couldn't keep looking into his deadened eyes, and had to turn away.
"Your businesses need you Timo," she tried.
"Nay, Syros will run them just as well as me."
"Don't be so selfish! Your family-"
"I am a weight around their necks. They will be happier when I am gone."
"I won't be," she murmured, and overwhelmed by confusion began to sob. He pulled her to his chest and wrapped his arms gently around her, comforting her.
"Could you love me, do you think? In time?" he asked softly. Kyros snorted impatiently. What had love to do with marriage?
"I might have loved you once," Serrae murmured miserably, "You were kind, and considerate, and I thought I could trust you. So I told you my story, and you didn't believe me. I bared my soul, and you laughed in my face!"
"I know I have done you wrong. This way I can make it right." He placed her gently to one side and knelt before her uncle again. "Let me makes this right, kallos."
Her uncle raised his sword.
"Not that way," Serrae begged, in agony, and Kyros froze, arm still raised. Timo looked at her, brows furrowed.
Serrae's fists were balled so tight that the nails bit into her skin. It was not fair that they should force her to do this. It was not fair that these were the only two options. There had to be another way… But for the moment, she could think of nothing.
"I don't want you to kill him, Uncle. If, if that means…" but she trailed off into silence, unable to bring herself to say the words. But it seemed it was enough. She could see hope blooming in Timo's eyes.
"I think the gods have put us together," he said quietly, turning to her, "They worked hard to bring you here, all this, so we could meet. I took you home, but they have brought you back a second time. Perhaps we shouldn't fight fate any longer."
She nodded, face taught, staring hard at the ground. "I think… I think I might be able to, to be your wife, given time. If you will agree to delay the ceremony…"
Kyros sheathed his sword and Timo bounded up and lifted her up bodily with his embrace.
"Anything, kallos," he said softly, face pressed into her hair, "Anything you desire. You will have all the time in the world." And she felt a weight lift within her to be in his arms again.
Hagne and his brother and sisters were embracing her next, all so ecstatic she couldn't help but share their enthusiasm, smiling at them with a mixture of shyness and excitement, whatever her inner uncertainties.
Kyros kissed her farewell, a little gruffly, have decided immediately he would not be waiting around in Athens for her to make up her mind on a wedding date. He could see she would be well looked after in Timo's home. His duties with regards to her had been executed and he was in fact rather pleased at the outcome, for all concerned.
But happiest of all had to be Timo. Though he hadn't smiled in weeks, Syros feared the grin that now split his face wouldn't fade until death parted his soul from his body. And even then, he was fairly certain that his last words would be a murmured sweet nothing in her ear, and that smile would follow him to the grave, and beyond.