Arretium, continued

And so I found myself that next morning on a sun-drenched stone patio engaged in light verbal sparring with an old Greek, envying him his family and the joy they gave him. Once Marieko sent Salia on her way he turned his gaze fully upon me and his displeasure was clear. I tried to imagine his reaction when Rufus handed him the task of teaching me to read and write, for I felt certain it must have been an interesting moment. He seemed fond of Rufus, but at the same time he held him in a sort of disdain, somewhat as if he were a father looking upon a son who simply had not turned out so well as he had hoped. I was even more amused when I came to understand that Rufus’s chief failing in his eyes was simply that he was Roman rather than Greek.

If he had somewhat conflicting emotions regarding Rufus, he had no such confusion regarding me: I was a barbarian, and a dangerous barbarian to boot. He never truly forgave me that episode in the hunting camp when I tried to strangle him, and he never turned his back on me again. In an odd way I found that rather endearing, for it was the one thing that had made sense to me in the midst of all the new and confusing ideas I had faced here among the Romans. It also added to my amusement at how sourly he accepted his task, becoming even more curt and dismissive than ever before.

There we were: him disgusted and disdainful, me amused and yet hiding my nervousness that I might not be able to understand this magic.

“For the love of all that is proper in this world,” he finally barked at me, “stop lounging like an idle whore and sit up straight!”

It was an inauspicious beginning.

He thrust a red wax tablet and stylus at me then pulled up a wooden stool and sat stiffly upon it, holding a tablet of his own. I sat up with the tablet in my left hand and the stylus clutched uncertainly in my right, while Marieko sat across from me glowering unhappily.

“Repeat after me: Alpha…” He would draw the shape and show me. “Beta…” He would draw it and show me again. “Gamma… Delta…

I slowly began to repeat the words, one after the other.

Nefas,” he said whenever I got it wrong?which was often at first. So I would stumble and repeat, feeling almost like a child, but unwilling to end the game. “Fas,” was all he said whenever I got the word correct. I think his frown may have actually deepened whenever that happened.

“Now, write the letters out.”

I tried. He would show me one shape, demand that I name it, and then that I draw it as he had drawn it. When I had first learned the Seafarer tongue– called Greek by these people– only the women had known what symbols meant; however, today it was considered ill form to teach a woman these things. Still, I slowly wrote out the letters, taking care to put every slash and dot in the correct spot.

The first morning was hardly promising. It ended somewhere around “theta,” which I drew poorly. He had slammed his own tablet down, muttered something about barbarian women, and stomped away. I was too relieved to be angry myself.

Yet the next morning he and I both returned. And the next. And the next. Soon I could make all the shapes and name them, and we began creating groupings of them in order to form words. Soon, he began doing so in both Greek and the Roman tongue.

Other than repeating the sounds for me, he rarely said much. “Nefas. Iterum Attemptabis.” I would try, again and again each new task, usually finally earning at least one grudging “Fas” before ending a day’s lesson.

In lingua Barbarae iterum,” he would command after I finished some string of Greek words. His estimation of the Romans was not much higher than it was of me. I doubt I ever saw him happy about anything, save possibly the plays of Aeschylus.

For several weeks this was how it would progress, out there on Rufus’ patio except on days when it rained. Marieko would teach and I would write, learning by rote without much true understanding. It was grueling on both of us and on occasion his irritation would get the better of him, sending him off growling about unwashed barbarians while he left me to copy some string of writing over and over again. Yet he always returned, and we would press ahead. Although he obviously hated this task at first, it became clear at some point that once he was started Marieko was far too stubborn to give up, even with a student as hopeless as me.

By then I would have been too embarrassed to quit, although I thought about it every morning as I contemplated returning to those accursed wax tablets yet again.

We were some three weeks into the lessons when suddenly I understood the essence of it. It took me so unexpectedly as to be almost a physical blow.

Nefas!” he grunted with irritation as my hand jerked and I mangled a “theta.”

Yes. He had seen me err yet again. But suddenly something was different. He did not sense it but I did. My head spinning, I finished the rote line of words he had just assigned me, earning me his grudging “Fas” as he demanded that I now write the same line in Latin. But I simply sat there, staring at the tablet in my hand, and then at some of the other tablets, my eyes roving back and forth. He stared at me as I looked up at him.

Suddenly, I could understand the connections between the various things I was doing. It became so clear to me, so easy to understand that I could hardly believe I had not seen it before. Before he spoke again I said his name. “Marieko.” His bushy gray eyebrows shot up toward his bald pate, but I ignored the implicit question in his eyes. Instead I turned to the tablet and spoke his name aloud again, slowly making the sounds: “Marr-eee-eck-oh.” And as I made each sound, I scrawled a shape. Then I looked up at him and turned the tablet to him.

His eyebrows scrunched back downward as his brow furrowed, then arched back upwards in surprise again. As plain as day I had just written his name.

I had never seen it written before.

Fas,” he said, seeing the comprehension dawning in my eyes. “Fas.” His face may have become a bit gentler. Perhaps. A bit.

Homerumne legeritus esses?” he asked, a grudging smile on his face. I looked at him blankly. Though the Iliad has since become one of my favorite books, until then I had never so much as seen it performed. But the next day, he introduced me to his old friend Homer, and the Iliad, and we read each morning from it.

It was stimulating, for the tale was thrilling, especially when I learned that the goddess Diana played a major part in it. Yet it was also most difficult, for he would read a line from the Greek, and would expect me to write the Latin. But in this manner, I would reinforce my understanding of both languages. Perhaps it was not the easiest or best way of going about it, but it worked for me and more importantly, it worked for him.

After I truly understood the magic of writing and reading, Marieko’s attitude toward me began to thaw somewhat. He still neither trusted me nor approved of me, but he loved to speak of literature and was always willing to answer my questions or point out new things I should read. As it turned out I loved the written word even more than he did?and within two months of my breakthrough I was fluent and literate in both languages.

I had also begun to learn far more about the gods of the Romans and Greeks than any of my prayer sessions with Rufus had ever taught me. Soon it was more than just Homer, but also Plato, and Aristotle, and Aeschylus, and?Marieko’s favorite?Euripides. Soon our daily lessons ended as I began to study on my own, but always from then on Marieko was happy to talk to me about anything I had read, and to make recommendations and answer questions for me.

It was as if an entirely new world unfolded before me, made up of a glorious tapestry of words nearly as ancient as me. After those first months any time Rufus wondered at my whereabouts he would find me in his library, poring over the volumes upon volumes of texts he had collected there. Rufus was proud of his vast collection, and even took time to read some of them from time to time. I on the other hand all but made that library my home. I drank in the works of Herodotus, his Histories opening my eyes to the unknown and heretofore unknowable world beyond the horizons. The Hellenika of Xenophon; I reread Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey a second and then a third time. Their tales of the gods (most important to me, Diana) fascinated me, as did the philosophical works of many major and minor Greek and Roman thinkers.

This new and engrossing world largely drove out all other activities during the day. The only thing that could draw me away was Rufus’s return to the villa in the afternoon, and even then I would find myself planning which texts I would absorb next. Rufus laughingly proclaimed teaching me to read was his gravest error as my studies competed with him for my affections.

I would have given anything to make that last the truth. For months I was heady, almost drunk, with the vast new worlds of words in that wonderful library. Although after some time I began to do more than just drink in the words, but to ponder much of what I found in them.

Perhaps eighteen months after arriving in Arretium with Rufus, my readings caused me to begin to worry. I was coming to understand some of the politics of the Romans, even if most of it still bored and confused me?histories were ever so much easier to understand than petty political wrangling. I finally began to do my own thinking on what I read, and I began to draw conclusions. From those I came to comprehend that there might be grave dangers in Rufus’ plans to assume political power and Godhood. Sadly for both Rufus and I, by the time I understood the danger it was far too late to save him?or my own heart.

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