THE AIRY slap of bare feet upon a marble floor, the gentle clap of a hand upon naked flesh, the sigh of a gardener’s trowel impaling the earth: all say to me, “Ioannes.”
He’d been the talk of Alexandria long before I knew him. People yawned when the governor of Aegyptus hosted games for victories over minor enemies in obscure parts of the Roman Empire, but they all went mad for the briefest glimpse of Ioannes. I had no idea why. He was a dancer, and I had no interest in dancing. I was a slave—an embroiderer and flax spinner for the wife of an advocatus, a counselor of law, in the Greek Quarter. My concerns, my indulgences, my interests were invested in the desires and needs of those who, at their whim, could get rid of me as quickly as they had bought me. But Ioannes noticed me, and I became the first of many he would call away from lives which, like mine, were renderings of incarceration, with an inventive mess of colors and designs more befitting the tomb of an ancient pharaoh than the dull daily doings of the nameless.
“He saw your embroidery on the wall hangings when he was here this morning,” said my master, his voice and body bent with sorrow. “My dear wife asked if he would like to borrow you to sew clothes and curtains for his performances, but he thought it too much for a slave to serve two masters, and he put the money in my hand without bothering to bargain. It was quite a sum, more than I’d ever think to ask for you, but he said he was sorry because you were worth beyond monetary value. Now gather your things. One of his slaves should be outside waiting for you.”
I had spent nearly half my eighteen years with this household. Both my parents had finished their lives here, and I thought I would, too. Though I was treated as something of an embarrassing poor relative, the advocatus, and his family were my family and my world. They were all I had ever known.
I remember staring at the work in my lap. I had been creating a scene from the Aeneid, the one in which Aeneas carries his ancient father to safety from the sack of Troy. Should I take it with me? Should I leave it?
My master, whose name was Nikodromos, must have sensed my confusion. He was, after all, an advocatus and a clever man. He put his hand over mine and closed my fingers around the needle. “We couldn’t be more shocked or surprised than if we’d been told you’d fallen down dead. But we’re happy for you. Go now, take this with you and send it along when it’s ready, and speak of us with kindness.”
Despite the years I had lived in the household, I had only my clothes to pack up. I never owned the needles I had sewn with and the cloth I had spun. They all belonged to the household. Nikodromos let me take what I needed to complete the Aeneid scene. My new master would have to provide me with more. Having so little, I was packed and out of the house within minutes.
People who have never lived in Aegyptus think the entire land is a desert, furnace-hot and dry. This may be true of the interior, where the pharaohs of times long gone had built their tombs and palaces, but not so of Alexandria. The city founded by Alexander the Great faces the sea. Winds blowing in from the water keep the temperatures pleasantly cool, never cold, in winter, and tolerable, never roasting, in summer. It even rains in Alexandria, especially in winter. That evening as I left the home of the man who had just become my former master, the rain was a mist that hung in the air like decorative texture chiseled on a column. My escort was wrapped in a cloak of heavy linen. He held the hood almost completely closed about his face. All I could tell was that he was tall and slender and moved with grace as well as speed.
“Quickly!” he urged as I stepped around puddles of rain that clumped in the alleyway between the houses. At best, the puddles would dilute the scent of urine that was a permanent part of city life. At worst, they would ruin my sandals.
“Come! Tlepolemus is leaving his shop open so we can choose the fabrics for the next spectacle. We really shouldn’t keep him waiting.” The voice was young.
I was annoyed that this Ioannes would expect me to go shopping with another slave on another slave’s business. No, this was not the best way to begin a new life. I had yet to recover from the shock of being forced out of my old one, and I suffered from the petulance that strikes when fate runs afoul of our liking.
At least the oil lamps in the shop exuded a welcoming, comforting, scent and light. In neat, solid lines in cabinets against the wall were bolts of fabric dyed every color imaginable, and bolts of fabric were piled high on the tables. Entranced, I forgot about the drenched bag I was carrying until my escort pulled it out of my hands. “Here, let me take that! We’ll be dancing the Labors of Hercules, and I was thinking about this for the backdrop. What do you think? Can you work gold thread into it? I’d like it to glitter like the night sky but not be as detailed as the night sky. I want the effect of sparkling stars and moonlight, not the real representation.”
I leaned to examine the length of black silk the shopkeeper held before us, and when I turned to answer the question, I was struck speechless by something I had not expected to see.
My escort had pushed back his hood and was shaking rain from the mass of loose, dark brown curls that was his hair. As he looked up at me from beneath that canopy, I perceived a νεανίας—a neanías, a youth about to shed his boyishness for the next stage in his life, a stage that wasn’t quite manhood. The appearance, for whatever reason, made me think of the sound of the most delicately fashioned bell mistakenly cast in bronze instead of silver.
“Silver, yes silver,” I babbled. “Silver thread, not gold, would be best for the stars.”
“Ah! Why was I thinking of gold, Tlepolemus? Of course, the stars should be silver!”
The shopkeeper’s beard widened as he smiled. “You have better things to do than stand out and stare at the night sky, sir. Will this be satisfactory?”
“If my expert approves.”
The neanías was mocking me because I dared contradict him about the color of the stars. Would he treat me this way in front of our master?
“It’s a lovely choice,” I said politely but without joy.
“Good!” said the neanías, and the shopkeeper promised to send the fabric around in the morning.
“That’s not necessary. We’ll take two bolts now. Just wrap them well, and I’ll carry them. And toss in silver thread too, will you?”
“Certainly, sir. How much?”
The neanías looked at me from the corner of his eye. “A great deal. I’ve a feeling it’s going to be better to have too much than too little.”