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Rosemary Rowe is the author of the Libertus Mystery series. She has also written more than a dozen bestselling textbooks as Rosemary Aitken.
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Requiem for a Slave
A Libertus Mystery of Roman Britain
By Rosemary Rowe
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2010 Rosemary Aitken
All rights reserved.
I was hurrying back to my mosaic workshop in the town, my mind on the important customer I had arranged to meet, when I stopped short on the street. I had caught sight of something which should not have been there. A street -vendor's tray! It was leaning against a pile of sorted stones outside my door. I heaved a heavy sigh. Not only was it likely to mark my precious stock – it was not so much a tray as a greasy piece of wood with an even greasier leather strap to hold it round the neck – but I was uncomfortably aware of what its presence meant. Lucius the pie-seller was at my shop again.
It was the fourth time in as many days, and no amount of hinting seemed to warn him off. My own fault, of course. I'd been too soft with him the first time he called, when I not only purchased one of his appalling pies but gave him a worn-out tunic out of pity for his plight.
I should have known better, especially about the pie. I had tasted Lucius's wares before, but I persuaded myself that they could not be as bad as I recalled. This 'example' was worse, if anything, clearly fashioned, as usual, from whatever ingredients he could rustle up for a few quadrans when the market stalls closed down: the questionable leavings from the butchers' blocks, a few squashed turnip leaves and the final sweepings from the miller's stones, more grit than flour – and those were only the things I could identify. The result was horrible. Even the dogs I fed it to when he had gone refused to finish it.
And here he was again, no doubt in the hope of tempting me to more. But this time even pity would not sway me, I resolved. I did not want him lurking around the shop like this; he was little better than a beggar and would horrify my wealthier class of customer, though one could not help feeling sorry for the man. He was so ugly, for one thing: a dreadful scar had puckered half his face and he had only one good eye – the result of an accident years and years before, when his pie-maker father had been careless with the sparks and reduced himself to ashes together with the house. Lucius had been badly burned himself, but somehow the brick-built oven building had survived, and while his mother struggled to nurse him back to strength, she scratched a meagre living selling pies.
She still baked them for him nightly, in that same freestanding oven outside the dismal hovel which was all the home they had, but now it was he who hawked them around the streets. Amazingly, he often sold them all. They were warm and inexpensive and they didn't smell too bad, and in a big colonia like Glevum there was always someone passing through who hadn't tried one yet.
Besides, Lucius was so humble, and his one good eye had such a hangdog look, that even hard-headed locals like myself occasionally weakened and purchased another of his wretched wares. A few of the more sympathetic among his customers felt sorry enough for him sometimes to let him have broken and discarded things they didn't want themselves – cracked bowls, chipped goblets, crusts of mouldy bread, or bits of cast-off clothing (as I'd done myself), odd broken sandals or a patched and faded cloak. Nothing of any value, as I assured my wife, but without them he would probably have perished in the cold.
My much-mended ancient tunic, fraying round the seams and with a stain from plaster halfway round the hem, was hardly the most remarkable of gifts, but the pie-seller had been embarrassingly tearful in his thanks and had pulled it on at once, over the filthy rags that he already wore. No doubt that garment too would soon reach the same sorry state, but in the meantime it looked quite well on him. It fitted him not badly when it came to length, though he was rather thinner than I have ever been, and the looseness of the front neckline drew attention to the scar. However, he was clearly thrilled with the effect and capered off in it. He had shown his continued appreciation since by arriving at my workshop every afternoon to offer me the last pie on his tray.
'And it's no good my telling him I haven't any change,' I'd grumbled to Junio, my adopted son, the day before. 'He only insists that I take it as a gift.'
Junio gave me his cheeky sideways grin. He had been my slave for many years before I freed him and adopted him, and he still took liberties. 'It serves you right for being over-generous. He's only trying to repay a debt.'
'And whose fault is it if I was over-generous?' I muttered sheepishly. It was true that I had been in expansive mood. Lucius had turned up with his confounded pies a moment after we'd received the news that Junio's young wife had just been safely delivered of a son. 'Perhaps pride in being a grandfather did make me profligate. But you rushed off to make a sacrifice yourself. Isn't that impulse very much the same?'
'That was my obligation to the deities, to thank them for my son. Lucius's obligation is to you. He regards you as his patron now and he's bringing you his dues.'
I sighed. I hadn't thought of it, but it might well be true. If Lucius saw me in that light, no wonder he kept appearing at my workshop door: A 'client' is expected to attend his patron's home each day and offer any service in his power, and in return he is entitled to expect support. It was flattering, but I wasn't sure I wanted clientes to sustain.
'Well, we'll have to persuade him otherwise,' I answered crossly. 'I can't have Lucius taking up my time. My own patron will soon be coming back from Rome, and I have this new order for a pavement to fulfil by then.'
Junio knew when to let a matter drop. 'The pavement that Quintus Severus is commissioning, to go in the entrance of the basilica? It's to be in honour of your patron, isn't it? So he will want it finished by the time that Marcus comes.'
'Exactly. Quintus isn't satisfied with being chief decurion; he's hoping to be recommended for the Imperial Court.'
Junio grinned again. 'And Marcus is related to the Emperor, of course. Or so the rumours say.'
I frowned at him. It was not wise to be irreverent where Marcus was concerned. My patron had long been the most important magistrate in this whole area of Britannia, but he was one of the most influential men in the whole Empire these days, now that his friend and patron Pertinax held the Prefecture of Rome. And the Emperor has ears and eyes in the most unlikely spots, even in a far-flung colonia like Glevum. 'Marcus has never denied the claim,' I said reprovingly. (He'd never confirmed it either, but I didn't mention that.) 'So treat him with respect. And Quintus Severus also, when he comes. After all, as senior town councillor he's virtually in charge while Marcus is away – apart from the commander of the garrison, of course.'
'The decurion's coming here? I thought you would have taken the patterns to his house?'
I was not surprised he asked. I had a range of patterns, ready laid on cloth, and we often took them to a client's home in my little handcart so that wealthy customers could make a choice in comfort.
But I shook my head. 'Quintus wants something special. Marcus attending Neptune: Marcus in a wreath, and the god atop a dolphin with a trident in his hand, and a border of agapanthus and birds around the side. In honour of my patron's successful sea voyage, he says. I volunteered to sketch it, but he opted to come here. I'm expecting him tomorrow, around the seventh hour.'
Junio looked doubtful. 'Then I shall not be here, Father, to show respect or otherwise. Tomorrow I have to go and make arrangements with the priest and order a bulla for Amato's naming day.'
Of course, I had forgotten the necessity for that. Junio had been raised as a slave in a Roman family, and he took for granted all the ritual of the naming of a child. I was born a Celtic nobleman, seized by pirates and taken as a slave, and only formally received my Roman name at thirty years of age, when my high-ranking master died and bequeathed me freedom and the coveted rank of citizen in his will. There had been no bulla and naming day for me (or for Junio either, since he was born in servitude), but my grandson was a Roman citizen by birth and was entitled to all the proper rites. 'Of course you do,' I said.
'Let's just hope that Lucius does not come and interrupt you,' Junio went on. 'It won't impress Quintus if the pie-seller is here, imploring you to take the greasy remnants from his tray. And I won't be here to help you get rid of him. Get Minimus to guard the door and send the man away.'
I nodded. Minimus was my private slave, one of a so-called 'matching pair' on loan from Marcus while he was away, and though he showed no aptitude for pavement work at all – more hindrance than help when I tried him out at it – he was good at turning people politely but firmly from the door. He would not be swayed by sentiment for one-eyed pie-sellers. I smiled grimly. 'That's just what I intend.'
But now the time was here, and so was Lucius, it seemed. It looked as though even Minimus had not been firm enough, and I would have to go and shoo him off myself. Suppose that Quintus Severus arrived and found him in my shop!
I confess I was annoyed. I was already flustered. I had been busy in the workshop until well past noon, fixing the remaining tiles on a mosaic plaque which Junio and I had been working on for days. It was a tricky commission, a half-circle piece with the Greek name 'Apollos' worked across the top. It was intended for a garden shrine in a country villa several miles away, but I had elected to assemble it at home, gluing the tesserae to a linen back, on which I'd sketched the pattern in reverse, so that I could instal it in a piece and soak the cloth off when the mortar set. (Inscriptions are always tricky and round letters most of all, and I didn't want my rather capricious client watching me and deciding that he wanted something different after all.)
So when I received a sudden summons from the customer – via a rather flustered little garden slave of his – I did not have much option but to go. Normally, I might have sent Junio to deal with this, but he was not available and it was no good sending anybody else. It was inconvenient: I'd hoped to have the piece finished and the workshop cleared and swept in time for Quintus's visit, but I hastened off – to find, when I got there, that the man was not at home. (No doubt he thought my arrival was unduly slow, although I'd downed tools instantly and hurried all the way.) Such things were not unusual, but today it was especially tiresome. From the angle of the sun above the rooftops now, I calculated that the errand had taken me two hours. I was lucky that Quintus was not already here.
But there was no one waiting in the front part of the shop, where the chair was kept for important visitors. In fact, the place looked unattended. I frowned impatiently. I'd left Minimus in charge. He was supposed to stay at the counter in case of customers. But there was no sign of him. Inside, sampling the greasy pies, no doubt! And then there was the tray! Leaning on my most fragile and expensive pile of stock as well – the lapis viridis, a rare imported green.
So I was not in the best of tempers as I reached the outer shop, skirted the counter and pushed open the door into the dusty gloom of the partitioned area at the back which was my working space.
'Minimus! Where are you? What do you mean by this?'
No answer. In fact, no sound of any kind. No sign of anyone. It was more than usually dark in there. I had put the shutters quickly in the window space myself – lest cats or sudden gusts of wind should get into the room and disturb my careful work – but there was no taper lit and I realized that Minimus had let the fire go out. That was worse than careless – it was unforgivable. He knew we were out of the dried fungus tinder for the making of a fire. I would have strong words with that young scoundrel when I got hold of him. We would have to go out and buy or beg embers from the tanning shop next door before we had the means of any heat and light.
I tutted audibly. The darkness made it difficult to move about. I could distinguish the outline of the workbench well enough, but the floor was littered with little heaps of stone that I'd been working with – the painstakingly shaped and sorted tesserae – visible only as darker shadows in the gloom. One careless foot and they'd be scattered everywhere.
Where was he anyway? Obviously off with Lucius somewhere, eating pies, I thought. But where? There was no back entrance to the workshop space. I had fully expected to find them both in here, since it appeared that Lucius had talked his way inside. Offered a bribe to Minimus, perhaps? One of his wares, no doubt, since he had little else. So where had they got to? It was a mystery.
Had Minimus been taken ill from sampling a pie? If that was the case, I thought, it served him right. I would make him finish it as a punishment. Then I glimpsed the trapdoor to the sleeping space above. That gave me an idea. They could have climbed up to the attic room – it had been damaged by fire a long time ago and was now used only as a store, but Minimus had been up there many times and it would make a good hiding place for illicit feasts.
I groped towards the ladder, calling, 'Minim —'
I broke off in dismay, for the first time feeling seriously alarmed. My foot had nudged against something on the floor. Something strangely heavy and horribly inert. I knew at once that it was not a heap of tiles. I bent over, peering. There was a suspicion of a sour, familiar smell, and I could just make out a shape I thought I recognized.
I no longer cared about where I put my feet or keeping my heaps of sorted tiles apart. I rushed to the window space and took the shutter down, letting the light in, hoping I was wrong.
But there was no mistake. I had found Lucius, and he was very dead.CHAPTER 2
He was lying face downward on a heap of tiles, and I turned him over gently. In the dusty daylight, it was clear how he had died.
He had not simply fallen, as I had first supposed – tripped on the stone piles and hit his head against the bench – or perished from eating his own disgusting wares. There was a savage dark-red line of bruise around his throat. Around the burn-scars his face was swollen purple now, his tongue bulged from his lips and his one eye protruded horribly. His dead hands were still clawing at his throat, where they had dug bloody channels as he fought for breath. Someone had pulled a cord around his neck and throttled him. I could see the dark smudge behind the ear where the cruel knot had been. This looked like murder.
And it hadn't happened very long ago, I realized, when my shocked mind recovered sufficiently to think, because although the corpse was cooling, it was not yet actually stiff. As I had turned the body gently on its back, one arm had slid limply down on to the floor. Just to be certain, I raised the limb once more: it was unresisting, but heavy – like a roll of sodden wool – and in a sudden horror I let it go again. It fell grotesquely, like a stuffed thing, and hit the bench leg with a hollow thud. I rather wished that I had not made the grim experiment, but it confirmed the obvious: that Lucius had been killed quite recently, while I had been out of the shop this afternoon.
Not necessarily in this room, of course. He was not likely to have come into the back workshop without an invitation, especially when I wasn't here. Unless for some extraordinary reason Minimus had lured him inside? I thrust that theory instantly away. Minimus would never have murdered anyone. I was quite ashamed for having thought of it.
Besides, when I looked more closely, I could see two faint grooves running in the stone dust from the doorway to the pile, and Lucius's toes and sandals were abraded at the front as if he'd been hauled ignominiously along with them dragging on the floor. It suggested that he had been murdered outside of the shop, then half lifted up, dragged in by the armpits and flung face down on the tiles.
That observation gave me some relief. It would have needed a stronger man than Minimus to accomplish that. My slave was scarcely more than a child, and Lucius, though there was little flesh upon his bones, was quite a solid corpse. He was at least as tall as I am, and – as I was now uncomfortably aware – was very heavy, dead. Only a full-grown adult could have dumped him here. Or more than one, of course.
But who would want to murder a man like Lucius? I gazed down at his face. Lucius had been an ugly man in life and he was uglier in death, but he was a harmless soul. True, his wares were terrible, but he was surely not a person to have serious enemies? Then I saw his belt. The loops that held his money-purse had been cut through and the leather ends now dangled uselessly. The purse itself was gone. Not that there was ever very much in it. Was that why he had died, for the sake of the few asses that he'd earned from his pies? It was more than usually possible, in fact.
Excerpted from Requiem for a Slave by Rosemary Rowe. Copyright © 2010 Rosemary Aitken. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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She thrust her finger into her pu<_>ssy suddenly.
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She apprehensively sc<_>oots away, her gaze remaining on the frigid floor beneath her bare feet.