Mother and I had strolled almost the whole way from our farmhouse down to the agora near the harbor, when everything started to go wrong.
It was always a relief to get out of the house, and away from our endless women’s work of spinning and weaving—even if Mother walked so maddeningly slowly, while I tried to hurry us along. Our small expedition was officially to buy fresh tuna and asparagus for the family’s dinner, some dates and almonds for later, and maybe some honey cakes for a snack. But I had an ulterior motive for asking to go shopping with my mother that day: the golden griffin earrings that I’d seen the day before at the jeweler’s stall. They were little half-arches of silver, with tiny flying griffins in shining gold dangling from each of them. There was only one pair, and my life would never be the same if I missed out on them.
Could I really have met griffins near our farm when I was younger, or was that just my over-active imagination? The famous historian Herodotus wrote that griffins guarded their gold from the one-eyed Arimaspians far away in the north-west of Scythia—not here in Athens. What would a golden-winged griffin have been doing near our farmhouse? But the griffin earrings were the most beautiful things that I'd ever seen, except for the griffins—if they were real, not just my imagination.
Then Mother said, “I’ve been thinking, Apollonia. It’s only two or three streets out of our way to call in at Philoumene’s house for a few minutes.”
The extra distance out of our way was more like thirteen streets than three, of course. And it was already close to midday. In that few minutes, someone else would probably buy the earrings that I yearned for. Our local agora here near the sea-port was tiny compared with the big one near the Acropolis in the city, but it was always busy. I couldn’t help groaning, but I tried not to let Mother see or hear. Philoumene had been her best friend since they were both toddlers. They always acted as if they had years of conversation to catch up on, not days, or sometimes only hours. But what if Philoumene's appalling mother-in-law was still visiting?
As we stood at the front door, Mother whispered, “Remember not to mention the slave boy who died. It’s a bit of a sore point with Philoumene.”
“What? Pistos? But he was perfectly healthy.” And I'd liked him. He and his father were captured by pirates while they were sailing from Corinth to one of the towns in Sicily on business. The pirates stole all their property and sold them as slaves.
“Weren’t you listening the other day? Pistos stole a cloak, so Philoumene’s husband beat him, and he died. Philoumene wasn’t happy.”
“Oh … But why would he steal a cloak? Where could he possibly hide it?”
The heavy door that led to the courtyard opened, and the young red-haired slave girl Eirene let us through. Philoumene rushed down the wooden stairs from her room up in the women’s quarters, squealing with delight. “Oh, Demetria, and little Apollonia, how lovely to see you!”
I bristled inside. At sixteen, I was hardly “little”—even if my father hadn’t yet married me off to someone twice my age. All the girls I knew were already married to old men their fathers ate and drank with. Some of them had popped out babies or were well on the way towards it, providing heirs for the families they’d married into. Maybe none of my father's friends were interested in me. Maybe I wasn't pretty enough for him to marry off easily, even with the dowry that would go with me. But even if I had any say in the matter—which I didn’t—I was in no hurry for marriage and baby-making. There were so many interesting things in the world. Griffins, for a start.
Of course, Philoumene meant no harm. She never meant any harm. She just opened her mouth and words came out, with no actual thought process in between.
She wasn’t ready for visitors—her hair was elaborately done, but she wasn’t made up. There were no nets or circlets on her head to hold her hair in place, and no bracelets jangling on her arms, though rings shone on her plump fingers. Her old slave Geta ran down the stairs behind her, with Philoumene’s baby boy on her hip. Geta looked exhausted, and the circles under her eyes were worse than I’d ever seen them. Perhaps the baby was teething again.