The vendor’s face turned bright red as he poured the flour out and showed him that it was indeed short of the mark. Cursing under his breath, the vendor added more until it reached the correct weight. There was malice in his gaze for Merus once he had the sack resealed and shoved it toward the boy.
"Merus?" Acheron said, keeping his gaze locked on the vendor who couldn’t see his face.
The boy looked up at him. "Yes, my lord?"
"Should you ever find your ya ya cheated again or should anyone here ever hurt you, I want you to go to the palace and ask for Princess Ryssa. Tell her Acheron sent you and she’ll make sure that you’re treated fairly and that anyone who hurts you is punished for it."
His eyes lit up even as the vendor’s darkened. "Thank you, my lord."
His grandmother placed a gentle hand on Acheron’s forearm. "May the gods bless you for your kindness, my lord. Truly, you are an asset to this world. Thank you."
Her words touched his heart and brought a lump to his throat. If only they were true. But they weren’t and the old woman would recoil in horror if she knew what she was touching the arm of. "May the gods be with you," he breathed quietly before he started away from them.
He hadn’t gone far before Merus came running up to him.
It was so strange to have someone address him like that. "Yes?"
"I know we’re beneath you, my lord, but my ya ya wanted me to ask you if you’d take bread with us so that she can thank you for your kindness. I know she’s blind, but she’s a wonderful cook. We bake bread for the baker who sells it to the king and his court."
Acheron looked back to where the old woman stood proudly even though she couldn’t see any of the activity bustling around her. Beneath him . . . If the child only knew what he really was, he’d be shunning him like everyone else.
They both would.
Still, Acheron hesitated. He should go before they learned the truth of him, but he didn’t want to insult them and make them feel as low as people made him feel.
So instead he nodded. "I should like that very much, Merus. Thank you for asking."
The boy smiled, then led him back to where his grandmother waited at the edge of the market.
"He’s with me, Ya Ya."
The kind lines of her face crinkled as she smiled and spoke in the opposite direction from where he stood. "Thank you, my lord. It might not be as fancy as you’re used to, but I promise you you’ve never tasted better."
"We’re over here, Ya Ya."
Her cheeks pinkened. "Forgive me, my lord. I fear I’m a little directionally inept."
"I don’t mind." He took the packages from Merus that the boy was holding. "I’ll carry these if you wish to help your ya ya home." He was amazed at how heavy the load was for the child.
Beaming, Merus took his grandmother’s hand and led her through the crowd.
"My name is Eleni, my lord."
"Please, just call me Acheron. I live at the palace, but I’m no one of any importance."
"He looks important, Ya Ya. He’s got very nice clothes and shoes, and he’s really, really tall."
She tsked at her grandson. "It’s not nice to contradict people, Merus. Remember what I’ve told you. Looks can often deceive you. A poor man can don the robes of a prince and a prince can be shoeless in the street. We judge people by what their actions are, not by the clothes they wear." Her smile was one of complete serenity. "And by Lord Acheron’s actions today, we know him to be noble and kind."
Acheron paused as her words touched him deeply. Never in his life had he felt like anything other than a whore, yet here, with two people who were dressed in rags, he felt like a king. It was such a foreign sensation that he actually lifted his chin a degree.
Merus opened the door to a small house that was nestled among a row of them. Acheron had to almost bend double to fit through the short doorway as he followed the two of them inside. The main room was small and crowded, but it felt like home. There was an energy to the place that let him know Merus and Eleni were very happy here together.
However, it made him appreciate how much space he needed in order to move. The rafters were so low, he’d almost given himself a concussion two seconds after he’d entered.
"Are you all right, Lord Acheron?" Merus asked.
Acheron nodded without moving his hand away from his forehead that throbbed from its collision with the wood.
"What happened?" Eleni asked in a panicked tone.
"As I said, Lord Acheron is extremely tall. He banged his head on the ceiling."
Eleni’s eyes widened. She approached him with her hand waving in front of her.
Acheron took her hand in his and put it on his shoulder so that she could tell just how tall he was.
"Oh, my gracious," she breathed. "You are huge. Like one of the gods."
Yet another thing that made him a freak to normal people-it’d also made Estes and Catera a lot of money since those who were shorter liked the feeling of power they had over someone his size.
Moving with a grace that was unfathomable to him, Eleni crossed the floor as if she could see every item in it and pulled out a chair for him. "Best you sit, my lord. I can only imagine how stifling our tiny home must seem to you."
"Not at all," he said honestly. Though he was fearful of colliding with more objects, he rather liked her peaceful home.
"Fetch us some milk, Merus."
The boy ran out the door.
Acheron watched as she went to her stove and stoked the fire there effortlessly. He was amazed at how she knew where everything was. There were no missteps or burns.
"My lord?" she asked as she pulled a knife from its holder. "May I ask you a prying question?"
"If you wish."
"Why are you so sad?"
He started to deny it, but why? She didn’t know him and he didn’t know her. Honestly, he was stunned that she could pick up on his mood without any visual clues. "How can you tell?"
"The sound of your voice when you speak. I hear the weight of sadness in it and a strong lilt of Atlantean."
She was unerringly astute as she cut, then placed bread on a stone trencher to warm. "Is it the loss of a person who saddens you?"
His gut knotted at the thought of Artemis. "A friend."
"Then I weep with you," she said, her tone comforting. "I’ve lost many friends over the years, and my children. Loss is always hard. But I have Merus and I take so much pride in his growth. He’s such a fine boy. You’ve no idea how much a son means to his parents. I’m sure yours must smile every time they look upon you."
Unable to bear the wounds she opened, Acheron stood. "I should probably be going."
She looked stricken. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No." He didn’t want her to feel bad when her intent had been to comfort him. It wasn’t her fault that the only person who loved him was his sister and that his parents had both cursed him since the moment of his birth. "I was headed toward the stadium for a play when I stopped in the market. I should go before I miss anymore of it."
She took his hand in hers, then froze as her fingers touched his slave’s brand. Her grip tightened. "You’re a slave?"
He felt his face heat as humiliation washed over him. He wanted to curse at her accidental discovery. "I was. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here."
But she didn’t release him. She covered his hand with her other one and offered him a smile of friendship. "Take your cloak off and sit, Acheron. You’ve done nothing to apologize for. I admire you all the more for stopping to help us. It’s nothing for a nobleman to do so, yet they seldom bother to help those less fortunate. For a freedman to speak up in defense of another takes great courage and character. What you did is all the more noble and kind, and I would be honored to have you sit at my table with us."
Acheron couldn’t breathe as emotions gathered to tighten his throat. He wasn’t used to anyone complimenting him outside of a bed. "Thank you."
Smiling, she patted his hand before she let him go. "You know, my father used to tell me all the time when I was a child that when we first meet someone we never recall later what was said or what they wore. What we remember most is how that person made us feel. You made my grandson feel important by defending him and you’ve made me eternally grateful for that selfless act. Thank you, child."
And the two of them had given him dignity. She was right. He’d remember that always.
Merus returned with a clay jug, breathless. "I’ve plenty of milk, Ya Ya. Is the bread ready?"
"Almost, dearest." She took the milk from him and poured it into cups for them.
Merus brought a cup for Acheron and set it before him. "Have you fought many battles, my lord?"
He lowered his cowl to smile at the innocent question. "No, Merus. None, and please, just call me Acheron."
"It’s all right, akribos," Eleni said gently. "Acheron doesn’t like titles."
Merus got his own cup and then ran back to the table with it. He climbed up on the chair next to Acheron. "Can you fight with a sword?"
"Not at all."
"Oh . . ." he looked disappointed by that. "So what do you do?"
"Merus," his grandmother chided. "We don’t interrogate our guests." She shook her head. "Forgive him, Acheron. He’s only seven and still learning."
"He doesn’t bother me. I’m nineteen and still learning."
Merus squealed with laughter.
Eleni brought the bread to the table and set it before Acheron along with a jar of honey and butter. "You have a most generous spirit. That is rare in this day and age."
Merus scratched his ear as if he was confused by his grand-mother’s words. "But what if he’s not what he seems? You always tell me that people sometimes put on masks and we don’t know what’s inside them."
Eleni ruffled his hair. "You’re right, scamp. We can never really see into the hearts of others. When I wasn’t much older than you, my father used to charge my brothers for their room and board. Everyone thought he was mean to do such a thing to his own children. My brothers hated him for it."
"For being poor?" Acheron asked.
She shook her head. "No. My family actually had quite a bit of money because my father was a miser with every coin. People hated him for that too, yet what they didn’t understand was that as a boy, he and his family been thrown out of their home for lack of coin. His baby sister, the one he loved more than anything, became ill from homelessness. She died of starvation in his arms and he swore then that no one he loved would ever die because of poverty again."
Acheron felt for the poor man. Having known such poverty himself, he could understand the man’s reasoning. There was nothing worse than starving. Nothing worse than living on the street with no protection from the elements . . . or other people.
Merus cocked his head. "But why did he charge your brothers if he had plenty of money?"
Her features softened as she cupped his chubby face. "He was putting all that money aside for when my brothers were ready to wed."
"Why, Ya Ya?"
She still didn’t lose patience with him. "Because you can’t marry until you can afford a bride price and you must have a home to take your wife to. When my brothers found those wives, my father pulled out all the money they’d paid him over the years. He’d put it aside for them as savings so that each of my brothers had a small fortune to set up a household when they were old enough. In the end, he wasn’t the mean person everyone thought him to be. What he did was for their benefit since it was money they would have squandered on foolishness. And it goes to show that we never know what’s in the heart of people when we judge them. Actions that sometimes seem mean aren’t. Rather they are done by the ones we love in order to protect us without our knowing it."
Merus held the plate of bread out to Acheron. "Ya Ya says that company gets first choice."
Acheron smiled before he took a piece and buttered it. "Thank you, Merus."
The boy served himself and then his grandmother. The normality of it all slammed into Acheron. Here he sat, with his head uncovered and neither of them reacted to him at all. There were no furtive, lustful glances that they were trying to conceal. No nervous movements.
He was just another person to them. Gods, how much that meant to him.
"You’re right," he said after he swallowed his bread. "This is the best I’ve ever eaten."
Eleni lifted her chin in pride. "Thank you. I learned the art of it from my mother. She was the most skilled baker in all of Greece."
Acheron smiled. "Surely in all the world. I can’t imagine anything better than this."
"Her pastries," Merus said around a mouthful of food. "They’ll make you weep."
Acheron laughed. "I imagine a man would look rather strange weeping over food."
Merus smacked his lips. "Trust me, it’s worth the humiliation."
Eleni ruffled his hair. "Eat up, child. You need to grow strong and tall, like Acheron."
Acheron didn’t speak as he finished the bread. He delayed as long as he could, but all too soon he was done and it was time to leave.