We all nodded, our eyes wide.
Gryllus again searched our faces, his one eye staring intently. After a moment he raised his gaze and stared off into the middle distance. We still stood at attention in front of him, expectantly, and as he looked back down at us he sighed. Then his face resumed its hard expression.
"They tell of a Spartan boy who once stole a fox cub," Gryllus said, "for to the Spartans even a fox is food. He was seen running away, and the owner caught him. Before the boy was seized, however, he had just enough time to stuff the cub into the front of his tunic. When the cub's owner demanded to know where the beast was, the boy denied any knowledge. That is what he was trained to do. The interrogation went on for some time, until the boy suddenly fell down dead where he had been standing. When his body was examined, it was found that the hungry fox had chewed his way directly into the boy's intestines, but the lad, in his mindless Spartan way, had remained quiet at the cost of his life."
Proxenus stood his ground, but Aedon's lower lip began trembling. As Gryllus coolly watched, he blanched, and suddenly whirling, ran out of the room. We could hear the sounds of his retching as he made his way outside. Proxenus and I stood silently watching Gryllus, who stared back at us impassively for a moment, then calmly strolled out, leaving us alone. For nights afterwards, I was wakened in the darkness by a trembling Aedon as he crawled into bed with me, terrified at nightmares of Herculean Spartans overpowering his house. Proxenus, however, remained in his own bed, tossing and turning, gamely taking on the attackers single-handedly.
AEDON RACED THROUGH the crowded streets, dodging porters and carts as he ran, merrily snatching samples of fruit and sweets from the baskets carried by the women and girls on their way to their market stalls. Racing up the hill of the Acropolis and through the Propylaean Gates, he stopped, panting and perspiring, at the newly completed Parthenon to inspect the progress being made on construction of the garishly painted marble temples in the vicinity. He came here almost every day, to converse with the stonemasons and builders, who knew him by name, and to ask endless questions of the chief architect, Callicrates, who only half jokingly would sometimes ask him to check a calculation or two.
After Aedon had closely scrutinized the footings for the new pillars to be erected in the Temple to Nike, I reminded him that it would soon be time for his afternoon lessons, which I attended with him at home. He nodded grudgingly and offered to race me back to our house. I declined, as always, but he ignored my refusal and sped off down the hill.
He was in his twelfth year of life, on the verge of manhood, and his vast ability was beginning to become apparent. Aedon was not only musical, but quick of wit besides-though of boys like this there were plenty, for Athens cultivated them like herbs in a kitchen garden. Even in the city's hothouse intellectual environment, however, he was a prodigy, a privileged child who could calculate sums in his head long before meeting his tutor and being whipped by him for the first time, whose speaking and reading skills surpassed those of boys much older. He could recite lengthy passages of Homer, Hesiod and Stesichorus from beginning to end, or from any point at which he was asked to start. He could identify the authors of every book and play for the past four hundred years, or cheerfully improvise a dozen lines of dactylic hexameter on any suggested theme. He could discuss Pythagoras' technique for measuring the hypotenuse and his ratio of musical consonances, interpret Hippocrates' theorem on the quadrature of lunes, and debate the obscurities of the basic identity of individuation, X = T. He admired Pindar, though he had to hide those scrolls from his father, who did not approve of Boeotian authors. And simply by wandering through Athens the boy found himself surrounded by matchless models on every side. Painting and sculpture had already scaled a height which no subsequent artist could ever surpass. The names of Zeuxis, Polycleitus and Praxiteles were on everyone's lips. Architecture was a matter of pride and beauty, and well-known architects collected as many fervent admirers and hangers-on as did famous actors. Mathematics was taught everywhere, and lessons in grammar and rhetoric had been freely given and studied in the city's agorai and plazas for a hundred years by itinerant scholars.
Just prior to this time, Aunt Leda had decided to return to Boeotia, to salvage what she could of her husband's estate from the grasp of greedy relatives. Proxenus had returned with her. Aedon was crushed at his cousin's departure, and all the more dependent upon me for companionship. Gryllus decided that the means of filling the hole in Aedon's heart was to keep him physically and intellectually active the entire day. With Gryllus absent in Athens' service and the boy's mother busy with household affairs, this task had been charged to me, and to the series of tutors that Gryllus had carefully selected and hired. Despite their strictness and my best efforts, however, when Proxenus left Aedon began exhibiting an uncharacteristic wild streak, intent upon demonstrating his independence. He was impatient with my efforts to rein him in, and my defense of Gryllus' strictures and demands left him angry and exasperated. His tutors and I gamely tried to fill his day with constructive activities, but at the least hint of drudgery or boredom he would sweep his scrolls and tablets aside and stride out of the house with scarcely a moment's preparation. On this particular day, as he sprinted and dodged his way through the crowded city, I, his irritated paidagogos, twice his size and half his speed, barely managed to keep up.
Racing through a narrow, jointed alley at breakneck speed, I stumbled over some loose cobbles and became separated from him. He continued on out of sight, much to my terror. This had happened once before, three years earlier, and the story is worth a brief digression. I had lost sight of him during a festival, when the streets were teeming with performers, vendors, and spectators. Gryllus was departing with the fleet the next day, and had brought Aedon to the festival with him that evening to take in the excitement. It was a rare treat for the youngster to accompany his father in public, but Gryllus had taken the precaution of bringing me with them, sternly charging me to watch the boy so that Gryllus could be free to greet his peers without hindrance. Aedon walked proudly by his father's side, politely responding to the queries and compliments of Gryllus' colleagues. Somehow, though, the careless boy slipped my watch, and we became separated in the throng.
Gryllus was deeply engrossed in a discussion with some politicians about the war's progress, and it was I who first noticed that the boy was missing. Gryllus saw me standing on tiptoes to peer over the crowds, and immediately realized what had happened. Scarcely breaking the rhythm of his conversation or the jovial smile on his face, he squeezed my upper arm so hard it made me wince, and bent down to my ear.
"If the boy is not back at my side in five minutes," he hissed, "you will be sold." Just that. Four words that even now, decades later, make my throat constrict in fear. I had five minutes or my life would be over, scarcely before it had begun. Gryllus had that power over me, and he stood back up and smilingly resumed his conversation with his oblivious colleagues.
Aedon had not meant to become separated, and when he realized what had happened, he panicked. Standing in the street crying, he was almost knocked down by an enormous, half-drunk, somewhat simian-looking actor, a street performer really, in full regalia: embroidered robe with bared chest, tragic mask, braided hair. Aedon was an extraordinarily handsome young boy-smooth olive skin, enormous round eyes so dark they were almost black, even white teeth-and he would not long go unnoticed wandering alone in the city. It was fortunate that the actor was not, like many in his profession, seeking a catamite, but was, rather, an honest soul. He no sooner saw the youngster than he squatted down and asked him his name. When he discovered through the boy's tearful sobs that he was Aedon, whose musical reputation was well known in dramatic circles, the man swaggeringly introduced himself as "Otus, renowned interpreter of the greatest Athenian playwrights," and swept him up joyfully onto his shoulders. Otus then pushed and careened through the jostling crowd, bellowing, "Gryllus! Lord Gryllus! I have a package for you."