(excerpt from Roman Mystery #13)
Flavia thought Miriam was the most beautiful girl she had ever seen.
With her glossy dark curls, huge violet eyes and creamy skin, Jonathan’s sister could stop a column of legionaries dead in their tracks. Last month she had actually caused a collision between two mule-carts just inside the Roman Gate; even at eight months pregnant, she was so breathtaking that the drivers had not been able to keep their eyes off her.
Flavia knew that Miriam hated such attention from men. That was why she usually pulled her palla over her head like a modest matron. But here in her father’s house she went unveiled. Wearing a dark-blue stola and sitting on the red and orange striped divan, her beauty was ripe and luminous.
Flavia sighed. Miriam was not only beautiful, but she was kind and compassionate. She was also a skilled midwife. Even though she herself was heavily pregnant, she still attended the births of poor women and female slaves who could not afford a doctor.
A slave-girl stepped into the dining room doorway. As usual, Flavia tried not to stare: the girl had the name ‘Delilah’ branded on her forehead. Jonathan’s mother, Susannah had brought her back from Rome.
‘Excuse me,’ said Delilah. ‘Nubia is here.’
A dark-skinned girl in a lionskin cloak came into the tablinum, closely followed by a black dog.
‘Nubia!’ cried Flavia. ‘And Nipur! Now that we’re all here, Miriam can tell us her mystery.’
‘Have a mint tea, Nubia,’ said Jonathan, as the dogs greeted one another.
Beside him, a dark-haired boy in a sea-green tunic waved and pointed at a plate of almond-stuffed dates. Lupus was an ex-beggar boy who lived with Jonathan. He had no tongue and could not speak.
‘Greetings!’ said Nubia, handing her lionskin to Delilah. She took a beaker of mint tea and a handful of dates and sat gracefully beside Flavia.
‘Miriam was just telling us about her new friend, Hephzibah,’ explained Flavia.
Nubia frowned. ‘Hephzibah? That is a name I am never hearing before.’ Nubia had been in Italia for a year and a half, but her Latin was not yet fluent.
‘It's a Hebrew name,’ explained Miriam. ‘Hephzibah was born in Jerusalem, just like me. We used to be best friends when we were four years old. Then I met her last month when I was attending a pregnant slave at the estate where she lives. We’ve become good friends again.’
Flavia turned to Nubia and said through a mouthful of stuffed dates: ‘Miriam wants Hephzibah to go live with her and Uncle Gaius. To help when the baby is born.’
On the divan beside Jonathan, Lupus made a slicing motion across his throat, crossed his eyes, and fell back onto the red cushions.
‘What Lupus is trying to say,’ explained Flavia, ‘is that Hephzibah’s master died yesterday.’
‘Was someone cutting his throat?’ asked Nubia.
Lupus shook his head. He shaped an imaginary fat belly and then played dead again.
Jonathan grinned. ‘He was pregnant?’
Lupus laughed and grunted no, then puffed out his cheeks and tucked his chin down.
‘He died of fatness?’ said Nubia.
Lupus gave her a thumbs-up.
‘At least that's what his slaves say,’ explained Miriam. ‘His name was Dives and he owned an estate near us.’
‘Dives!’ said Jonathan. ‘I’ve just come from his funeral.’
They all stared at him and Jonathan explained, ‘I was hunting and I saw them burning his body. The slaves were probably right about his dying of fatness. He made a blazing fire.’
Nubia shuddered but Flavia turned excitedly to Miriam. ‘I’ll bet I can guess what your mystery is: You suspect Dives was murdered, and you want us to find the killer!’
‘Nothing as dramatic as that,’ said Miriam. ‘I’m sure Dives died a natural death. The mystery is that a few days before he died, Dives set Hephzibah free.’
Nubia looked up from stroking Nipur. ‘The man who dies of fatness?’ she said. ‘He sets your friend free?’
‘Yes. But he warned her not to tell anyone what he had done.’
‘Why didn’t he want her to tell anyone?’ asked Flavia.
‘I don’t know. She doesn’t know.’
‘She told you,’ said Jonathan, raising an eyebrow.
‘I know.’ Miriam’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. ‘And I wish she’d told more people. That's part of the problem. Dives died a few days after setting Hephzibah free. He left his entire estate to a man called Nonius, but –’
‘That’s right,’ interrupted Jonathan. ‘Nonius Celer. He was at the funeral.’
Miriam nodded. ‘But Nonius says there’s no record of Hephzibah's manumission.’
‘What is man you mission?’ asked Nubia.
‘Manumission,’ said Flavia, ‘is the act of freeing a slave.’
Miriam continued. ‘Nonius – the new owner of the estate – claims that Hephzibah is still his property. If only she’d told some of the other slaves or freedmen, they could confirm her claim. But apart from the man who witnessed the manumission, I was the only one who knew about it.’
‘There was a witness?’ asked Flavia.
‘Apparently,’ said Miriam.
‘Can’t he testify that your friend was set free?’ said Jonathan.
‘That’s the mystery,’ said Miriam. ‘We can't find the witness anywhere.’
‘What’s his name?’ asked Jonathan.
Miriam shook her head. ‘Hephzibah can’t remember. She thinks he might be called something like Gaius Helvidius Pupienus. He’s some kind of official. If it helps, she described him to me.’
‘It helps.’ Flavia took out her wax tablet and made a note of the name.
‘According to Hephzibah, he has thinning hair, a long nose and a small butterfly-shaped birthmark over his left eyebrow.’ Miriam leaned forward: ‘Flavia, we need to find him. Hephzibah has summoned her new master to court, and we need the witness to prove she’s free.’
‘Can she do that?’ asked Jonathan. ‘Can a slave summon a citizen to court?’
‘She can’t,’ said Miriam. ‘But another citizen can.’
‘I'll bet it’s Uncle Gaius,’ said Flavia. ‘Has uncle Gaius agreed to be her protector and take on her case?’
‘No,’ said Miriam. ‘Gaius is terribly busy with the farm. The olive harvest isn’t quite in. Also, he doesn’t know very much about legal matters.’ She lowered her head and stroked her belly. ‘So I’ve asked Gaius Plinius Secundus to help.’
‘Pliny!’ cried Flavia. ‘You asked Pliny?’
‘And he agreed to help your friend?’
‘Of course Pliny agreed,’ said Jonathan drily. ‘He’s madly in love with Miriam.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jonathan,’ murmured Miriam, but her head was still down.
Flavia exchanged a knowing look with Nubia. ‘It's not that ridiculous, Miriam,’ she said. ‘Pliny was passionately in love with you last summer.’
Miriam looked up at Flavia. ‘But he’s not in love with me now,’ she replied firmly. ‘He is studying rhetoric and said he would welcome a chance to plead a case.’
Jonathan snorted. ‘If you say so.’
Delilah appeared in the doorway again. ‘Excuse me, but a carriage has arrived. Driver says he goes to Laurentum.’
‘That’s me,’ said Miriam, rising awkwardly to her feet. ‘One of Pliny’s slaves was running an errand here in Ostia. He brought me in and now he’s taking me back.’
Once again her eyes brimmed with tears as she looked at each of them in turn. ‘Please. The four of you must find that witness. Hephzibah has no other proof that Dives set her free. Without that witness she can never come to live with us. And she must come to live with us. She must!’