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The Used Virgin: Argolicus Mystery (Argolicus Mysteries Book 1)




Zara Altair

Copyright © 2016 Zara Altair

All rights reserved.

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No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher

This is a work of – fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used – fictitiously.

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[]Author’s Note

Thanks for reading The Used Virgin.

You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like a good mystery and diving into another time.

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Enter the world of Argolicus.

With few exceptions, the western world was at peace in the year 512 after Christ’s birth. Warlords were plotting in the Balkans either for the East or the West, but mainly for their own power. Rumblings in Persian borderlands perhaps threatened the Roman Empire as seated in Constantinople. The most recent disturbances—betrayals, if you will—of the Frankish kingdoms had been settled some five years. Bishops and clergy squabbled over textual interpretations of the Gospel, patristic writings, or Patriarchal proclamations, as usual, some in a huff, others with conciliatory leanings. Vandals had controlled northern Africa for almost 100 years. The Visigoths ruled Spain and traded with avarice. In Italy affairs of concern were mainly internal—the parallel Roman law and Ostrogoth legal systems ran under the regal Edicts guided by a sense of civility, providing structure for dispute resolution.


Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Politics No More

The Horse Trade

The Search

A Bath And A Letter

Thank you!

Preview: The Peach Widow

Author Bio


[]Politics No More

Argolicus was finished with Rome: rumors, innuendos, back-handed back stabbing. He was finished with politics.

At home and retired, he was enjoying the afternoon sun at his farm in Squillace. He gazed at the tranquil bay of the Ionian Sea beyond Squillace. Trade boats bobbed in the water waiting to carry oil, wine, cattle, or horses up either coast to Ravenna or Rome. A lone horseman cantered up the road from the bay. From the kitchen, he heard voices and murmurings as his mother held her daily counseling for the slaves. Perhaps someone was pregnant, or a grandfather’s hips hurt too much for him to walk. Close at hand Nikolaos was reading Herodotus expounding on the origin of Egyptian gods. Soon it would be Argolicus’ turn to read aloud to his lifelong tutor and receive the usual slight corrections to his pronunciation.

It was a deceptive false spring day in Februarius. The sun was out, the sky blue, light puffy clouds floated across the sky in a gentle wind. The hills were green. The horses, sheep, cattle and goats grazed and browsed soaking up the sun. In the pruned vineyards he thought he saw light shining through a few red leaf buds. Let those Roman patricians suffer in the snow. This was the place to be.

Nikolaos continued on about the possible origins of Zeus and Herakles and the belief systems in Athens and Egypt.

A sudden clattering on the stones of the courtyard jerked him from his doze. He had just enough time to compose himself before the doorman came through his study out under the portico to announce… But there was no announcement. A tall young man with very intense blue eyes rushed past the slave to greet Argolicus.

“Ebrimuth!” Argolicus immediately recognized his childhood friend by his intense blue eyes. “How is your Third?” He asked with a smile.

The man was about his age of early thirties, a Goth but dressed in a Latin tunic. He was just as large as Argolicus and towered over the doorman who had been robbed of his traditional protocol. Their fathers had been friends and somehow he was related to Argolicus’ mother, but he wasn’t sure how. Now both of them were fatherless.

“The estate is quite prosperous, thank you. I heard you had returned from Rome. I am so happy to see you after your years in Rome,” he enthused in the Gothic language. “Have you returned to bring civitas to the south?”

Argolicus chuckled. “I have no such intention. I’m here to run the estate and take care of my mother. Perhaps I will find a new wife. Do you know of someone?”

“No, not that I can think of.” Ebrimuth paused and then continued. “But I need your help. Rather, my neighbor Adeodatus needs your help.”

“I’m a little rusty on the farm matters but I’m certain Nikolaos can find something in his herb garden to help. Is it a mare having trouble? A goat whose milk has gone sour?”

“No, no, no. Nothing like that. This is serious.” Ebrimuth turned his blue eyes to gaze far out across the sea. “It seems impossible, but it is true.”

“Ebrimuth, what is it?”

He paused, fiddled with the belt around his tunic, gulped and then stated, “Adeodatus has been accused of raping a virgin.”

Nikolaos looked up from his book. The doorman who was retreating stopped still. Silence filled the small garden.

“Adeodatus?” Argolicus was stunned. Adeodatus was renowned as a conservative who imitated the old Roman virtues trying in a slightly judgmental way to bring culture and civility to a south far from Rome. Argolicus had quick flashes from childhood: a slingshot, a wounded rabbit, Adeodatus sending him to make amends, meeting a sobbing Julia who later became his wife, and having the courage to tell her he had wounded her pet. Adeodatus had taught him responsibility and justice from an early age. No wonder he had been his father’s friend.

“But this is unthinkable. Even politicians in their most evil intent refrain from this accusation. It is like deliberate murder. It is so black an aspersion it taints the accuser. Who could make such a claim?”

“Well, that is why I came to see you. There is no normal recourse. It is the Governor himself, Venantius, who made the claim and holds him prisoner.”

“I’ve retired,” Argolicus claimed with a sigh. Nikolaos folded up the book.


[]The Horse Trade

On the inland road the next morning, Argolicus along with Nikolaos who went wherever he went and Lucius, the estate overseer who was a fine judge of horses, plodded along on three horses under the unseasonable warm winter sun.

“Do you think Ebrimuth understands that I really have no power, no official capacity?”Argolicus asked his tutor.

“He knows that you are retired. He understands that you will use observation and judgment as you did as praefect.”

On the pretext of needing a breeding stallion for the estate, they were on their way to the local governor’s estate.

Venantius was the son of Liberius but Argolicus had never met him. He remembered tagging along with his father to visit Liberius who arranged for the distribution of the Thirds to all of the Goths and was renowned for his fair dealing. He remembered an old man, but everyone is old when you are five. He remembered many trees.

They topped a steep hill. Argolicus looked out over an expansive estate—villa, barns, stables, outbuildings, fields— which covered the opposite hill. Horses grazed in various pastures or stood in small groups under trees. As far as he could see everything was neat, well-ordered, and in good health—animals, plants, fields, trees.

Venantius turned out to be anything but old. He stood by the paddock on a low wooden podium in a silk toga woven in an intricate and colorful eastern pattern. He was much younger than Argolicus, perhaps twenty and gleamed with youth and beauty. His hair was cut so that his brown curls tumbled about his head heedless of the smooth fashion in Rome. Behind him was a table laid out with cups and small plates of silver tended by two servants who dispensed wine and gustum of fried squash, olives, mushrooms, cheeses and bread at the slight wave of Venantius’ hand. Venantius was commenting on the next stallion.

“Now, this one is from the same line your father bought some years ago. We keep records of all the horses that leave, especially the stallions.” He spoke to Argolicus but it was Lucius who would make the decision. Argolicus’ idea of a good horse was one that went a long distance with smooth gaits, comfortable.

Lucius was silent so Argolicus followed his lead. Venantius gestured several times more for other horses to enter for viewing.

“Well, if that one doesn’t please I’ve saved the best for last. Bring in Mercury’s Flame.” Venantius motioned to the handlers. Chestnut was too mild a word for the gleaming red color. The horse gleamed red in the sun. He pranced around the paddock shaking his head. If beauty was any criteria this was the horse. And if beauty was any criteria, Argolicus thought, the horse was more beautiful than Venantius. The stallion didn’t have to try, he just emanated strength, conformation, and elegance.

Lucius nodded. The handler brought the horse over. Lucius leaped over the paddock fence and went inside. He ran his hands over the horse talking some nonsense that Argolicus could not understand. The horse nudged Lucius with his nose. Lucius looked at Argolicus. This must be the one Argolicus read in his eyes.

The two overseers haggled through the bargaining while Argolicus ate lunch with Venantius on the terrace: stuffed dates, pheasant in wine and plum sauce, puddings of fruit, local wine from the vineyard which was known throughout Italy. Argolicus noticed that in spite of all the puffery about keeping records Venantius was just as happy to have his overseer strike a price as Argolicus was to let Lucius make an offer. Clouds were rolling in from the sea. He found the boy Governor’s conversation trivial. In spite of the horse buying ruse, he was no closer to finding Adeodatus. At the moment, Venantius was going on about wines from the various vineyards and who was using which processes and what results they were having.

“…and in southern Lucania the soil is even dryer so the grapes…”

Venantius paused mid-sentence as Lucius and the overseer approached from the barns. Both whispered—the overseer to Venantius, Lucius to Argolicus. Venantius smiled. Argolicus tried not to frown.

“Nikolaos,” he called. Nikolaos came from the kitchen looking quite sated with the lunch. He pulled out a sack from inside his tunic. Argolicus counted out the appropriate coins.

Mercury’s Flame was waiting along with the other horses by the paddock. The sun was hidden by a towering cloud. Argolicus felt he had learned very little about Venantius except that he was self-centered and self-indulgent. He did not know what he would tell Ebrimuth.

The farewells were brief. Lucius mounted the stallion. The extra fourth horse was tied behind Nikolaos. Argolicus mounted and turned toward home.

“Young master, I need to tell you what I learned in the kitchen,” Nikolaos said.

From behind the cloud, lightning flashed. Argolicus hoped it would be a dry storm.

“Nikolaos, ‘Master’ will do. I’ve been of age some time now.”

Thunder broke over them in a roar. The stallion shied then twisted. Lucius was in the air. The stallion bolted and Lucius was on the ground. Argolicus heard shouts and hoof beats as he struggled to control his own horse in the confusion.

“…and even though some claim that the land in Lucania produces the sweetest wine, we all know that the grapes grown right here in these hills are the best in Italy.” Everyone at the table nodded in agreement with Venantius. Except, Argolicus. He did not know enough about wine and grapes and vineyards and soil and sunlight in combination.

Evening arrived before the horse had been collected and a veterinarian found to deal with Lucius’ shoulder. Venantius insisted that Argolicus stay overnight and that Lucius have a room of his own so that he could rest with the sling-like contraption the veterinarian had placed over his shoulder. He was in the room now sleeping away after drinking some poppy juice mixed with sweet herbs.

Argolicus was disappointed. He had hoped that with the longer stay he would discover more information about Adeodatus, but all he had experienced was a long and boring dinner.

The guests for the evening, a family from a nearby estate, lounged around the table. The father, Gaius Scipio, his wife, Julia, and their daughter, Valeriana. The family had no hint of Rome about them.

The father wore his best but plain tunic, the mother wore some intricately wrapped hair style that was out of fashion when Argolicus was a boy, and the girl, about 14 or 15 years old, was in a modest long blue tunica with a bit of embroidery around the neck. They seemed like honest country folk. Only the daughter wore jewelry. The simple gold links spaced with pearls were no match for Venantius’ dazzling rings and hammered gold bracelet. Julia, the wife, spent most of the evening gazing into the middle distance. Valeriana alternated between aggressive pouts and obvious boredom. A single musician strummed a lyre in a cubiculum off to the side.

Venantius did most of the talking during the meal. Argolicus noticed that Gaius Scipio and his wife made few comments, and those were of assent. Argolicus was tired from the events of the day. The dinner seemed endless but now, finally, they were picking at the honey custards and the end of the evening was near.

Gaius Scipio spoke up. “I’ve been thinking about the new lands and wondering if we will have enough slaves to tend the vineyards.”

Venantius gave a quick glance at Argolicus. “Now, now, Gaius,” he placated. “All in good time. We don’t want to bore our guest recently arrived from Rome. I am certain dinner conversation there is much more sophisticated than our humble country concerns.”

A grunt and a squeal came from the other side of the triclinium. The daughter, Valeriana, stood up covered with wine. Her cup lay on the table. Wine dripped on the floor. At once her parents were on their feet. Gaius Scipio made apologies to Venantius. Valeriana’s eyes met Argolicus’ with a look he could not read. She ran from the room crying.

Gaius Scipio shrugged his shoulders, “She’s been unpredictable lately.”

“Don’t worry,” Venantius replied. “I am certain it is just a stage. I was young once.”

Argolicus refrained from raising an eyebrow, much less laughing.

A servant appeared with a lantern to lead the guests to their rooms.

The cloistered musician ceased playing. Rain spattered on the roof and fell to the courtyard in rivulets. Lightning flashed somewhere in the distance.

“Ah, peace at last.” Venantius leaned back and motioned for more wine.

Argolicus looked through the opalescent blue goblet in his hand. The glass was delicate and very thin. He wondered how it kept from breaking. He speculated on the cost of an entire set.

Aloud, he said, “One of the things I learned in Rome was how precious the quiet moments are.”

Venantius nodded.

“I enjoy being back. Visiting neighbors is a good way to get reacquainted with Squillace. I appreciate your welcoming here this evening.”

Another nod. Venantius was definitely feeling the effects of the copious amounts of wine he’d consumed throughout the evening. His eyelids hung heavy.

“I was looking forward to seeing Adeodatus, an old friend of the family, but I hear there is some trouble.”

The eyelids fluttered up. Argolicus thought he saw an involuntary twitching but he was not certain.

Venantius sobered. “Ah, yes, Adeodatus. I suppose you want to hear about that.”

Argolicus nodded in his turn.

“Who would believe that self-righteous prig would take advantage of a young girl? It was the very Valeriana you met this evening. The one who spilled the wine.”

Argolicus remembered the unfathomable look she gave him before she ran. “It’s no wonder she’s “unpredictable” as her father called her. What an unsettling experience.”

“He was visiting Gaius Scipio to buy a horse, just as you are here. As Gaius Scipio tells me, Adeodatus cornered the girl in a hallway and enticed her into his room. She woke the entire household with her screams. Adeodatus was caught almost red-handed. When the servants arrived he was in his room and somehow fully dressed. The girl was crumpled in the hallway unable to speak. She just sobbed. Well. Gaius Scipio sent a messenger here. We retrieved Adeodatus and he is now imprisoned. No threat to any virgins at this time.”

“He’s here?”

“Yes, and suitably imprisoned.”

“I would like to visit him.”

Venantius’ face shifted. “He’s allowed no visitors. That is part of his punishment.”

“But surely, an old family friend.”

“I have decided. He has no visitors. No family. No citizens. No one.” At last, Venantius showed an aspect Argolicus had suspected all along.

“Well, that’s that then.” Argolicus said, thinking nothing of the sort. “It’s been a long day. Perhaps someone could show me to my room.”


[]The Search

The servant handed a lamp to Argolicus and left him at the door to his room. He was tired, fairly cranky, and took complete affront at Venantius’ arrogance. He was too exhausted to check on Lucius. A good night’s sleep and he knew he would wake up with an answer to what to do next. Somehow he would find Adeodatus.

In the room shadows leaped in the flickering lamplight. The young women in the wall fresco seemed to sway and the trickling from the outside rain brought life to the water pouring from the pot one held as it flowed to the basin below. The geometric patterns on the mosaic floor flashed light and dark in the wavering light. The entire room seemed alive with movement except for Nikolaos curled on the floor asleep, gripping his stylus.

He was so still that for a brief moment Argolicus thought his beloved tutor was dead. But Nikolaos murmured and stirred. His hand gripped the parchment and his eyes opened.

“Young Master.” He smiled. Argolicus was so relieved he did not correct him.

Nikolaos got to his feet and glanced at the parchment in the dim light. He went around the room lighting one lamp and then another.

“There is someone here. I think it could be Adeodatus. As we ate in the kitchen the overseer came in with two workers…big fellows. The cook filled up a pot from the soup on the fire and the two men left. The overseer gave the cook a wink and then went into the house. I was sketching a map of the buildings I could remember…” He held out a small parchment, then picked up his stylus from the floor.

“Nikolaos, let’s put our heads together and fill out the map and then search for Adeodatus.” The two of them marked buildings, barns, outbuildings, corridors with squares and scratch marks. Thunder rolled outside and another bout of rain burst from the sky.

“As long as the rain keeps up, we’ll have time to find him.” Argolicus was relieved. Now he could hope to find Adeodatus and discover why Venantius was punishing him. He still could not believe that Adeodatus had raped a young girl. He would defend his father’s friend.

“There are the barns, the storage granges, the stables. Look, we remember five smaller outbuildings. They must be for tools and tack for handling animals. Then there is this larger one far out by the vineyards. I’m certain he’s in one of the outbuildings.”

Nikolaos said, “There are storm lamps in the pantry by the kitchen. I’ll go to find one. If anyone asks I’ll tell them my master is hungry.” He winked and slipped off down the hallway.

Alone Argolicus thought about Venantius. He was young, spiteful and self-centered. He did not care if others were bored by his long ramblings about wine production, vintages, vineyard care and the like. Argolicus could certainly imagine him being just as selfish about human dignity and even human life.

Nikolaos slipped back into the room. “I think one lamp should suffice.” He pulled the lamp from the folds of his tunic and held it up.

They bundled their cloaks around them against the storm. Nikolaos lit the lamp and then pulled down the cover. Argolicus followed Nikolaos—he seemed to know the way—down the dark hallways until they came to a side entrance. The cloudburst had stopped for the moment. Nikolaos lifted the cover of the storm lamp. The dim light shone out on a sea of mud beyond the paving stones.

Argolicus stepped off into the mud. His feet sank into the ground and mud clung to his shoes.

“This will take some time,” he whispered. Nikolaos nodded.

“Master, those two men were big.”

Argolicus looked down at his diminutive tutor. “We’ll think of something.”

They trudged away sinking and slipping in the mud toward the first outbuilding.

The storm lamp cast little light. The clouds seemed close and blackened the sky. They weren’t really able to look at the small sketchy map they had drawn in the room. Argolicus tried to remember all he had seen during the day when they were looking at the horses. The stable to the right, a barn behind, the large building out by the vineyard. Where were the others? They couldn’t just stumble and slide around in the dark mud. They had to search systematically. But if they went everywhere surely someone would see them. He wasn’t looking forward to meeting two big and antagonist men. He was bigger than Nikolaos but his fighting skills had rusted during his time in Rome. Plus, he’d never really excelled in military arts.

Their plan seemed ridiculous—walking around in the mud in the dark without knowing where they were going. Plus, they really didn’t know if the prisoner was Adeodatus. And why had he let his loyalty to his father’s friend lead him on this wild goose chase? He slipped and fell on his knee.

“Master,” Nikolaos whispered.

“It’s alright. I’m fine. But, perhaps we should turn back.” There, he had voiced his thought.

“If we go back without looking, what will we tell Ebrimuth?”

They trudged on slipping through the sticky ooze of mud. The first outbuilding was by the stables and held tack and other equipment for horse handling. Up the slope and blessedly less muddy was the barn. At the near end was a lean-to filled with large pitchforks and other instruments for animal handling. At the far end of the barn was a shed with small doors opening along the front at chest height. Argolicus delighted that the mud was not as deep hurried in the dark toward the shed.

“Master, no.”

“I won’t stop until I know we have looked everywhere for Adeodatus.” He opened the door.

He smelled birds and heard an enormous cackling and rustling of feathers. A large and strong buff-colored bird launched feet first against his shin gouging him just below his muddy knee. The birds made a horrendous din that hurt his ears. He backed out and slammed the door. He leaned down to massage his leg.

“Master, they are the fad among the rich country folk. They are called chickens.”

“We will never have them at my place.” He tried to wipe the mud off his leg so he could see the wound. Blood oozed down his leg leaving a track down his muddy shin. Nikolaos made a small noise. Argolicus looked up. “What?”

“You’ve been away from the country too long.” Nikolaos burst into muffled laughter behind his hand. The lantern bobbed.

Argolicus looked in the jiggling light of the lantern. His leg was a mess. His cloak sagged with mud. Sticking to everything were hundreds of tiny down feathers from the birds.

“Devil birds,” he muttered. “How could anyone think of such hideous things as a prestigious fad?” A cow in the barn started lowing. “Let’s get out of here before someone comes to check on the animals.”

As he spoke, a door opened in the slave quarters and women’s voices carried up the hill. Two lights glowed as they advanced. Nikolaos closed the storm lamp. Argolicus and Nikolaos scurried behind the barn. The women headed up to the chicken coop. When they opened the door to check, the noise started up again. They closed the door and, chatting and laughing, headed back down the slope.

“There one more place to look. The winery.” Argolicus said.

“Off we go.” Nikolaos opened the lantern again and they headed up the hill.

Thunder rolled in the distance but when Argolicus looked up the clouds were breaking. He saw a few stars. The ground was covered in grass. As they walked, the grass scraped mud off his feet with every step.

As they approached, the winery loomed dark and large. It was built into the side of the hill on the edge of the vineyard. The complex was large, larger than the villa. They skirted the slave quarters.

Amazingly the big double main doors were not barricaded. Argolicus held his breath waiting for a squeak as he pushed at the right side door. Not a sound. The hinges were well-oiled. Obviously, the slaves were kept busy in the off-season.

An overpowering scent of grape must assaulted his nose. The room was like a large cavern. In the vague light of the lantern, Argolicus could not see a ceiling. In the center of the room, huge wooden timbers stood tall with ropes swinging from various pulleys attached. In the middle, an even larger timber like the trunk of an old oak tree jutted out at an almost horizontal angle.

“He can’t be in here. If he’s here at all it will be in another room.”

“Master, be careful.”

Too late, Argolicus felt a sound thud to his forehead as he bumped into one of the poles keeping the big turning log in place.

“Stay by me. See, there.” Nikolaos held up his lamp. Next to the great wine press was a large rectangular hole in the floor for stomping the grapes. “You don’t want to fall in.”

“By Demetrius and all the martyrs, this place is a death trap in the dark. Let’s get to the other side.”

They found an archway behind the large press. Nikolaos lifted the lamp. The scent of fermenting grapes was stronger here than in the large press room. Across from them was a large room filled with amphorae neatly arranged with labels tacked on the wall: mulsum, turriculae, a small stack of carenum, and other labels obscured by darkness.

To the right a long and broad hallway led to various archways opening onto rooms for processing and storing wine.

“This isn’t promising,” Argolicus said.

“Let’s look more, Master.”

Argolicus spotted two doorways at the end of the hall. Wooden doors closed off the rooms. They hurried down the hallway almost choked by the musty smells. Across one doorway a large wooden bar blocked access.

Argolicus heard a moan, then, “Just let me die.”

“Here, here.” Argolicus motioned to the wooden bar. Nikolaos set down the lamp. Together they lifted off the bar. Argolicus opened the door.

The stench was overpowering. It was not fusty grapes but human excrement. Stacked around the room were baskets for harvesting grapes. Argolicus heard another moan.

On the floor behind the baskets in the far corner of the room, a man lay on his side in a pool of muck—excrement and blood. What was left of his tunic clung to his body with clots of blood. In front of his face, a dirty bowl held leftover food. His hands were tied in front so he would have to lap at the bowl like an animal. His feet were tied with a rope which led to a ring in the wall. He moaned. Argolicus took a step forward.

“Adeodatus? Adeodatus.”

Adeodatus blinked open one eye. The other was swollen shut. “Argolicus? But what are you doing…”

“Let’s get you out of here.” Argolicus bent to untie the ropes. “Nikolaos.” Nikolaos set down the lamp and began untying the knot at the wall ring.

Adeodatus began crying and mumbling incoherently. “So young…I didn’t…I didn’t…She tricked…Screaming.”

Argolicus murmured as he worked the rope. “Don’t worry. It’s all over.” He freed the rope. “We’ll get you out of here.”

“I think not,” a voice behind him boomed.

Argolicus and Nikolaos turned and stood.

Nikolaos was right. The men were big. The one who spoke was dark, tall and wide with tremendous shoulders. The second was red-headed and taller than the door, perfectly formed but huge.

“What are they called again, Rufus?” The first one asked.


“Yes, well we found our chicken.” He stared Argolicus in the eye. “It wasn’t hard. We followed your trail of feathers.”

As the first one’s arm came out for a punch, Nikolaos cried, “Hup. One.”

Argolicus immediately put his weight on the balls of his feet and brought his arms up. As he saw Nikolaos fly by toward the red giant, he dodged the first blow. Underneath the arm of his opponent he brought is fist up from his waist and hit hard to the middle of the man’s higher abdomen as Nikolaos had taught him years ago. Argolicus danced out and back beyond the big man’s reach before the big one could recover. The man threw a wild hit toward Argolicus’ shoulder. It glanced off. Argolicus went in under the arm again and, this time, brought his arm up from below straight at the man’s chin.

He glanced beyond the big brown one. Outside the door, Nikolaos was attached to the giant. The tutor was pulling the giant’s red hair and hitting with something. Argolicus saw blood on the floor.

His chest hurt, all the air went out of his lungs, and he fell back all at the same time. Harvest baskets tumbled around him. He thought he heard Adeodatus moan. But, it wasn’t Adeodatus. He moaned.

Anger surged through his body. He pushed the baskets away just as the big one was leaning over to deliver a punch. Argolicus grabbed his hair, yanked his head down and kicked him in the groin.


[]A Bath And A Letter

Argolicus and Adeodatus sweltered in the caldarium. Nikolaos dabbed at Adeodatus’ face in the places he had nicked while cutting off the filthy beard and shaving him. Adeodatus, covered in purple, yellow and blue bruises, was telling them his story.

“That Valeriana! I don’t know how they convinced her. She is so young. I’m certain they promised her jewels and a good marriage. She stood outside my room and started screaming, ‘Help! Rape! Help!’ I came out of the room to see what was going on. She gave me a wicked smile, ripped open her tunic and cried, ‘Rape! Rape,’ at the top of her voice. I didn’t understand until Gaius Scipio appeared with those two big brutes. I recognized them immediately. They belong to Venantius. That’s fine Nikolaos, you may stop. He calls them bodyguards but really they do all sorts of dirty work and bullying around the countryside. When Gaius Scipio sneered and the two brutes grabbed me I knew. Venantius and Gaius Scipio want my vineyards.”

“What? Your vineyards?” For the time of a blink, Argolicus couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. Then he thought about Rome and destroying a man’s reputation to gain his property made sense. “It was all a ruse, then?”

“Yes.” Adeodatus sighed and his spirit seemed as fragile as his old, bruised body.

“You never touched the girl?”

“No. Me? With a 14-year-old virgin? That’s absurd. It goes against all principle.”

“Yes, well, I thought as much. That’s why I’m here.”

Voices and the clumping of wooden sandals erupted from the tepidarium. Venantius, surrounded by slaves burst into the caldarium. The two battered brutes trailed behind.

“So, the great praefect of Rome has found the noble Adeodatus.”

“Yes, and Cassiodorus knows I am here.”

Venantius lost some of his threatening pomp. “Cassiodorus? And so? I am the governor of Bruttia.”

“Ah, but he is the King’s right-hand man. And my best friend since our childhood.”

“Then, how…?”

“Oh, politics, of course. Although it will not be good for you, or Adeodatus. Any of us.”

“We know whom we know,” proclaimed Venantius, Governor of Bruttia. He turned with a rustle of silks and clumped away on the wooden clogs trailed by his retinue.

Early the next morning Venantius, anxious to see them gone, had a cart filled with feather-stuffed sacks to carry Adeodatus and Lucius. He loaned a horse to pull the cart and a rider for Mercury’s flame.

Valeriana came out to the courtyard. She gave Argolicus another unreadable look then rushed inside.


The afternoon sun cast a soporific lassitude over the garden. The first bees buzzed in the flowers. Adeodatus droned on in excellent Greek as Herodotus explained the customs of the Taurians.

Argolicus watched the old man read. The bruises were turning green and yellow, the cut on his head was just a red seam. Adeodatus looked up from the book and smiled first at Argolicus and then at Ebrimuth who was there to take the old man home after supper.

Down the hillside, a messenger rode up the hill. Argolicus was ready for the message but was anxious about the consequences. He had, as he’d promised Venantius, written to Cassiodorus. Cassiodorus would then present the situation to King Theodoric. The answer was from the King.

“A messenger,” Argolicus announced to the group. Adeodatus stopped reading and tensed. They all watched the messenger’s progress.

They waited in anticipatory silence until the doorman brought the messenger out. Argolicus accepted the message tube. When the messenger was gone he lifted off the top, reached in, pulled out the rolled vellum sheets, broke the seal, and unrolled two sheets.

The first sheet was a note to him from Cassiodorus, the King’s Secretary and Argolicus’ lifelong friend.

“Most Dearest Mus,” Argolicus began reading aloud. “Although the circumstances are peculiar and our most treasured King was not in the best of health…” Argolicus stopped reading aloud. “Ah, this is a note to me.” Everyone leaned forward as Argolicus quickly scanned the note.

One phrase stood out. Your friend Adeodatus will not be pleased.

He looked up and glanced at all of them: Nikolaos, Ebrimuth, Adeodatus. “We will read this together,” he said.

“The crimes of subjects are an occasion for manifesting the virtues of princes. You have addressed to us your petition, alleging that you were compelled by the Spectabilis Venantius, Governor of Lucania and Brutii, to confess yourself guilty of the rape of the maiden Valeriana.”

Everyone looked at him and nodded in agreement.

“Overcome, you say, by the severity of your imprisonment and the tortures inflicted upon you, and longing for death as a release from agony; being moreover refused the assistance of Advocates, while the utmost resources of rhetoric were at the disposal of your opponents, you confessed a crime which you had never committed.”

”Yes, yes,” murmured Adeodatus. Tears welled at the corners of his eyes.

“Such is your statement. The Governor of Bruttii sends his relatio in opposition, saying that we must not give credence to a petitioner who is deceitfully seeking to upset a sentence which was given in the interests of public morality.”

“Public morality!” scoffed Argolicus. “I’m sorry, I shall continue.”

“Our decision is that we will by our clemency mitigate the severity of your punishment. From the date of this decree you shall be banished…”

“What, banished?” Adeodatus cried. “I’m too old for long journeys.”

“Let me finish, please, Adeodatus,” Argolicus grumbled.

“…And on your return no note of infamy of any kind shall be attached to you; since it is competent for the Prince to wipe off all the blots on a damaged reputation. Anyone who offends against this decree, by casting your old offence in your teeth, shall be fined three pounds of gold.”

“There is more, but it is just Cassiodorus closing.”

No one spoke. Adeodatus began to weep.

Ebrimuth got up, walked over to Adeodatus, and put a hand on the old man’s shoulder. Adeodatus immediately burst into loud sobs.

“Here, here, Adeodatus,” Ebrimuth consoled. “Come with me to Lombardi. I have some business with grape vines.”

Adeodatus stopped sobbing and looked up at Ebrimuth. “I don’t know what to say. I am confused. I must go lie down for a while.”

Nikolaos rose, took Adeadatus by the elbow and guided him inside.

“Ebrimuth, do you really have business in the north?” Argolicus asked.

“I do.” He stood up to leave then frowned. “It’s shameful, just shameful, to treat an honored man that way. I’ll go home now and get ready. I will pick him up tomorrow in the early morning. Don’t worry, I will take care of him.”

“Thank you, Ebrimuth. If it weren’t for you, he might still be languishing in that winery…or worse. Even so, Venantius has friends at court.”

Ebrimuth took his leave.

Argolicus was left alone in the afternoon sun. He looked out over the ocean sparkling blue in the distance. He saw the messenger start down the road after a meal in the kitchen. The fields on either side of the road were covered in Spring wildflowers. A slight breeze whispered in the trees.

“Politics.” Argolicus sighed.

Behind in near the barns a rooster crowed for no reason. Now Argolicus recognized the sound.


[]Thank you!

Thanks for reading The Used Virgin.

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The Peach Widow

The next Argolicus mystery is coming soon!

The Peach Widow


“Welcome, Your Illustrious Sublimity. Secundus Valerius. My mother will join us shortly. I’m so glad you are here.” His voice was moderate, but in no way obsequious. Argolicus decided he was a plain-spoken farmer who seemed to know basic protocol.

A slave hurried across the atrium from the back of the villa and whispered, just loud enough for Argolicus to hear, “Your mother waits in the atrium.”

Secundus waved his arm to a passageway, inviting Argolicus to follow. “This way. She waits in the garden.”

Nikolaos trailed behind as they made their way into the garden. And, amazingly the garden was cool. An old plane tree, filled with the broad leaves for which it was named, created a leafy covering which cooled the garden. A fountain splashed quietly, surrounded by sweet scented herbs. Several chairs were grouped by the tree’s vast trunk near a small table. The widow sat in one of the chairs gazing at the fountain.

“Mother,” Secundus said. “Your guest is here.”

She turned and smiled. It was a smile from long ago, a bit of a flirt, her chest out, her eyes widened, her teeth white and even. The smile of a coquette on a body much older.

“Livilla Valerius, your Sublimity,” she said, not dropping the smile. Her hair was dark with slight touches of grey at the temples, combed up and pinned in a fashion current in Rome when he left. She stretched out a plump arm and gestured to a chair. “I took my husband’s name when we married. Thank you for coming. I admire your mother greatly. She is wise.”

“She is,” Argolicus replied, taking her warm hand and then dropping it. “She tells me…”

“Yes, I talked to her. Secundus,” she said, turning to the son, “find Tatius. We will eat together in a while with our guest. ”

Nikolaos leaned against the trunk of the plane tree, his eyes focused on a middle distance, his tablet and stylus ready for notes. The widow Livilla did not look at him.

Secundus left and a slave brought a bowl of fruit and some light wine.

Livilla turned to Argolicus, posing with her head tilted above a shoulder, turned in his direction. “Amalina, your mother, she said you could help. I am grateful.”

“My mother gives me more credit than is due. I can’t promise that I can help. As you know, I have no official capacity. I can use my experience to make suggestions. Your husband, what happened?”

“He was a good man. And so strong and vigorous. I just…the way he died. Like an old man. We were out here in the garden after dinner.”

“What do you mean ‘like an old man’?”

“We were sitting. Well, we weren’t exactly sitting.” She gave another coquettish smile. “All of a sudden, his heart. He felt sick. Then he clutched his chest. He kept saying, ‘I can’t stop it.’ He gasped for air. He doubled over.” She choked and gasped. She was wringing her hands. “Then he fell on the ground. I called for Tatius and Secundus, but he was already gone. I miss him every day. But that’s not the problem,” Livilla shook her head. “Now Tatius wants everything. He wants nothing to go to Secundus.” Her voice cracked. A tear glistened at the corner of her left eye. “I don’t understand. He was always a headstrong boy, but now…”

Argolicus was losing patience with her ramblings. No wonder his mother had such a difficult time explaining.

“Livilla Valerius, help me understand the situation. You have your dowry and your marriage deposit, yes?”

“Yes, yes. That’s not it. And I want to stay here. Secundus says…”

“And neither of the sons are yours? They were born to your husband’s first wife?”

“Yes, that’s true. But Secundus is like my own. He was only a small child, not even two years old, when I married. He thinks of me as his mother.”

“What about Tatius?”

“Tatius has changed.” She gave him another smile but it was only half as flirtatious as the first. He saw how once she had been beautiful, as his own Julia had been beautiful, petite with clear skin and flowing dark hair. But now, even though her tunica was fine linen and richly embroidered, the ties around her bodice and waist only accentuated how she had filled out to roundness. She breathed in, blew out the air in a puff, and continued.

“Tatius, is mean.” She leaned forward to find a plum in the bowl. Argolicus watched her breasts sway underneath the soft fabric, and immediately was eluded the inviting glance she gave him. “Would you care for a plum? Or a peach?” Livilla asked in a welcoming hostess voice.

“No, thank you. Tatius?” He was finding the widow Valerius tiresome with no clear picture of her situation and her irritating coquettish ways that belied her plump, middle-aged body. He heard Nikolaos scratching on his tablet.

“You will meet him soon. He does not want to split the inheritance with Secundus. And, he hints that he wants me to leave.” She paused, took a breath, continued, “I’ve been here so long…25 years. I don’t know another life. He keeps telling me he is not legally bound to take care of me. Is that right?”

“Right or wrong, it is the law.” Argolicus was clear on the law. Inwardly he felt relieved. “You are not his mother.”

“Family,” she sighed. All the girlishness was gone. She looked now like a defeated matron. Her shoulders sagged. She started to cry. Nikolaos was scratching away, peering at his tablet, then looking at the garden, then scratching again.

“Livilla Valerius, it is the law, but a very heartless way for a stepson to act. I am sorry.”

She looked up. “There is no law to protect me?”

“Only that which returns your dowry and your marriage pledge goods and money. He can’t keep that. He must return it…”

“I didn’t think it would be like this…”

“Mother,” a rough voice called from the portico arch. “Are you whining again? And to a stranger?”

Livilla wiped her eyes as Argolicus stood up. “Gaius Vitellius Argolicus,” he said.

“Valerius Tatius.” He nodded in greeting. “What is your business?”

Tatius was dressed in a tunic of unbleached linen covered with fruit stains with a large green leaf-stained smudge on the side. He was short and dark, like his mother, with the same blocky body. By his side stood a large dog, broad across the chest, with powerful legs and jaws that looked as though they could crush iron. The dog was entirely white except for a black nose and deep brown eyes that focused on Argolicus.

A warm breeze rustled the plane tree leaves. Nikolaos stopped scratching on the tablet. Livilla cringed.

“Pup, down,” Tatius said in a quiet voice. The dog dropped to the ground, looking up at Tatius with adoration.

“Tatius,” Livilla stood breaking out from her embarrassment. “We are discussing the farm. Tell Argolicus how we do our trade.”

Tatius glanced at Livilla, then looked Argolicus in the eye. “The farm is what you see. The orchards, a few livestock, olives. My father loved farming and so do I. But, Livilla, you don’t pay much attention to the farm. Why were you talking about the farm?”

“I was telling him how much I like it here,” she answered.

“Ha!,” Tatius grunted. Pup looked up concerned.


[]Author Bio

Zara Altair combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus mysteries. The Used Virgin is the first in a series of mysteries based in southern Italy at the time of the Ostrogoth rule of Italy under Theoderic the Great. Italians (Romans) and Goths live under one king while the Roman Empire is ruled from Constantinople. At times the cultures clash, but Argolicus uses his wit, sometimes with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court.

Zara Altair lives in Beaverton, Oregon. She is a fiction author writing in the historical mystery genre. Her approach to writing is to present the puzzle and let Argolicus and Nikolaos find the solution encountering a bit of adventure and some humor in their search. Her stories are rich in historical detail based on years of research.

The next mystery in the series, The Peach Widow, is coming soon.

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Read the blog for updates on writing historical fiction.

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Thanks so much for reading The Used Virgin.



Felix Ravenna

Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic is the story of Argolicus in Ravenna. Is my current work in progress. Join Fans of Argolicus for updates.


Brilliant, fearless, incorruptible, Argolicus was a rich and powerful young Roman at thirty-five, former senator and Prefect of Rome, current magistrate in the Gothic realm of Italy. Now, at the express wish of King Theodoric, Argolicus undertakes an investigation into the “secret government” in Ravenna—and is swept up in a tidal wave of intrigue and danger beyond the corridors of official power…into a nightmare maze where barbarian warriors and Roman patricians mingle…where senators and even the papal nomination can be bought and sold. Here in this sizzling world of mystery, seduction, and betrayal, where his survival and that of his friends hinge on hair trigger thinking, where sinister forces are posed to exact a chilling conspiracy…here, a man like Argolicus can become a dreaded enemy or a duped pawn.


Sample tesserae (mosaic pieces).

Tessera – Red

Two weeks ago only three people had been in this tavern when he met with the two implementers. The little tavern had been empty except for Elijah and the two thugs, thugs if ever he’d seen thugs. Now he could not see across the room for the press of people. How could he have been so stupid. Of course, tonight, this week, this month, every public place in Ravenna was crammed with people. The noise of loud voices and raucous laughter hurt is ears. His head hurt. If he could find them they would have to shout just to have a conversation. No whispers in the corner at the small table.

He pushed his way through the crowd toward the far corner. Someone’s arm came out and hit him in the chest, not a blow just wild gesticulating. The man apologised. Elijah’s head hurt too much to respond. He just pushed forward.

A fight erupted in front of him.

“There is one God!”

“You deny the two natures of Christ?”

“Heretics, God is trinity!”

Benches toppled. A fist hit a nose. Shouting and fighting spread.

Elijah pushed on.

At the far corner the small table was still there. Four country clouts were drinking long after they should have stopped. How they could get so drunk on watered wine, Elijah had no idea.

Suddenly, the man at the far corner of the table stood, stumbled against the table knocking down the bench.

“I have to go out,” the fellow said and pushed his way through the crowd. The other three got up and stumbled behind him. The table tipped over spilling wine and cups.

Elijah felt a nudge.

“Hello, Elijah.” The two thugs pushed past him to right the table and benches, sat down, and motioned for him to join them. He couldn’t remember their names. He slid through more people and sat on the bench facing the thugs.

“So, what happened?” Elijah growled.

The wiry one started first. “It was him. Him who did it.”

The big, bulky one. “How did we know that deacon would be poking around? He saw us. There he was all pious with his candle, crossing himself, and then he heard us and turned around.”

Elijah let his anger show. “You’ve brought trouble on all of us. Didn’t you check before you went in? You had a key.”

The wiry one, “We didn’t know he’d be there. You said they all went to prayer after evensong. We just wanted to grab the cup and the book. You didn’t tell us the kid would be there.”

Elijah glared. “Do you know who ‘the kid’ is? Do you know? Triwilla will hunt you down.” His Syrian angularities grew sharper as his face tightened. His dark eyes glowed.

“We didn’t know. We didn’t know.” The wiry one whined. “You’ll have to pay us double so we can get away. You’re the one who wanted it done.”

“No,” Elijah growled again. His head was throbbing with the noise and dealing with these two. The responsibility was his. He’d been ordered to make it happen. He could feel fear welling up. A slave could be sold or killed for failure. Now he didn’t know what to do with these two idiots. “No hiding. No extra pay. Just go about your lives as if nothing had happened. The important thing is you have the cup and the book.”


“What?” Elijah stared at them.

“Well…” the wiry one started. “I… I…”

“You what?”

The bulky one said, “He lost them.”


Tessera: Gray

Servatus watched the fog seeping up the channel in what was left of gray evening light. The supply ships due would have to wait until tomorrow morning to come in. He threw on a short cape and lumbered with an almost old man’s gait down the docks toward the headquarters of the Classe oarsmen and the office of the praepositus dromonariorum, chief military oarsman. Even though he was harbor master for commercial shipping, the military Goths were in charge of the basin. Any changes in scheduled activity needed a report. This evening a report seemed preposterous since the military were staged along the basin entrance where the fog came in first. The loading quays were up near the city. Procedures were procedures.

He could have sent a boy with a message but he felt like a long walk. Plus, Aliulfus was a tough but merry sort. There was usually an offer of a cup of wine and a story or two after his official report especially at the end of the day. Should I tell that joke I heard from the sailors about the redheaded girl and the spider?

Automatically he glanced around checking the just perceptible merchant ships already in the harbor. He heard the gentle lapping of water against hulls. Nothing else. All secure. His thoughts turned inward. There was a luscious redhead who worked out of the Taburnum Arachnia. No, no, that’s not how it started. Of all the girls at the Arachnia. No, that wasn’t it either. He would never match Aliulfus in story telling skills.

“Hey, pops, watch where you’re going. You’ll fall off the quay.” Even though it was Latin, it was that rasping Gothic accent so rough to his Caspian ear. The deriding laughter was a universal language. Five of those useless ruffians from the city surrounded him.

“You boys get along now. This is a business area. We don’t need your graffiti here.” The tall dark one with the absurd short and long haircut smiled in feigned friendship. What was his name? Some rich boy with nothing to do but cause trouble. Ah, Ragnaris. He called himself The Hun. “We’re just playing a game, pops. Watch.” He tossed a small leather pouch to the short, stocky blond one who tossed it to the muscular dark one who tossed it…The sack whizzed past his head, in front of his chest, behind his knees. He was bigger than any one of them. Servatus didn’t get to be harbor master without a few brawls along the way. He thought about the odds of five to one and decided he would not start a fight. Just yet. He wondered how he would get rid of them.

The tall one with the odd hair caught the sack as it flew through the air. Nodded his head at the others. All five waved and mumbled “Good evening to you,” some in Latin, some in Gothic. As one they turned and sauntered off into the fog calling out numbers in Gothic while they pitched the sack back and forth among themselves. “Fifteen.” “Ten.” “Eight.” “No, nine.” The game made absolutely no sense. They disappeared into the fog headed back toward the city.

He shook his head, then thought about the redhead.


The Used Virgin: Argolicus Mystery (Argolicus Mysteries Book 1)

When Argolicus, once praefect of Rome under the Ostrogoth King Theodoric, retires at 32 and returns to his home to Bruttia in the very south of Italy, he learns that his avuncular friend from youth has been accused of rape, and not just rape, rape of a virgin. In the culture of the time, this accusation is worse than murder. Accompanied by his tutor and lifelong friend, Nikolaos, he goes straight to the governor’s villa where luxury, beautiful horses, and great wine hid an extremely cruel deception. While author, Zara Altair, was doing research for her novel Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic she came across a letter in the Variae of Cassiodorus (iii, 46) which has puzzled scholars. Who better to solve the mystery than her hero Argolicus? When history presents a puzzle, fiction creates a solution.

  • ISBN: 9781311606280
  • Author: Zara Altair
  • Published: 2016-04-01 08:20:15
  • Words: 9177
The Used Virgin: Argolicus Mystery (Argolicus Mysteries Book 1) The Used Virgin: Argolicus Mystery (Argolicus Mysteries Book 1)