Jonathan ben Mordecai stared at the charred flesh. "It's
horrible," he said to his friend Lupus in a strangled voice. "Horrible."
Lupus could not speak because he had no tongue. So he merely nodded.
The two boys were crouching before a brick oven and peering in through its arched doorway. A blackened haunch of venison lay on a platter among the glowing coals.
"Do you think maybe I left it in too long?" asked Jonathan.
Lupus nodded again.
Using a napkin, Jonathan gripped the platter and began to pull it out.
"Yeoww! It's hot!"
There was a resounding crash, and Jonathan stared down at burnt meat and broken pottery on the concrete floor of the kitchen.
"Oh Pollux!" Jonathan cursed and blew on his scorched fingers. "Now dinner is completely ruined. And it's all Miriam's fault!"
Lupus stared at Jonathan with raised eyebrows.
"Well it is! Everything's gone wrong since she got married and left home!" Jonathan stood up and tried to blink away the tears filling his eyes, so he could read what Lupus was beginning to write on his wax tablet.
YOU COULD SCRAPE
But before Lupus could finish, a big black puppy pushed between
his legs, seized the burnt leg of venison in his teeth, and scampered back out
of the kitchen.
"Tigris! Bad dog! Come back with that!" yelled Jonathan. "That's father's birthday dinner! Oh Pollux!" he cursed again. "This is a total disaster. It's going to be even worse than your birthday party last week. At least we had food, even if it was burnt."
Lupus nodded, then shrugged and pointed to his tongueless mouth, as if to say: I couldn't taste it anyway.
Jonathan gave his friend an affectionate glance. Less than a year ago Lupus had been a half-wild beggar boy with head lice and ragged fingernails. Now, with his hair oiled and combed, wearing a white birthday tunic, he looked like a young Roman boy of good birth.
From the direction of the atrium came the sound of the door knocker.
"That must be father," said Jonathan. "He probably forgot his key again. He's just in time for the total disaster that's supposed to be his birthday party. Could you let him in, Lupus? I'll start picking up these broken pieces of pottery before one of us steps on them and bleeds to death."
A moment later Lupus was back, followed by a dark-skinned girl in a lion-skin cloak and a fair-haired girl wearing a blue palla. Behind them came two adult slaves: a plump woman and a big, muscular man carrying a covered cauldron.
"Salve, Jonathan!" said the dark-skinned girl, and the girl with light brown hair said: "What happened?"
"Oh, hello, Nubia. Hello, Flavia. I dropped Father's birthday dinner and Tigris ran off with it and it's a total disaster."
"Don't be wretched," said Nubia, the dark-skinned girl. The back paws of her lion skin trailed on the floor as she knelt to help Jonathan pick up the shards of clay.
Flavia grinned down at Jonathan. "After Lupus's party last week," she said, "we thought you might need some help with the cooking. So Alma made her special goat stew with plums and pine nuts. Caudex will help serve it." Flavia stepped out of the kitchen into the columned peristyle. She looked around the inner garden. "Where's your father?" she asked, tapping a cylindrical package against her leg. "We have a present for him."
"He's not back yet," said Jonathan. "He's still out seeing his patients. Thanks, Alma." This last was addressed to the plump woman who was settling the cauldron among the glowing ashes on top of the hearth.
From The Enemies of Jupiter by Caroline Lawrence. Chapter 1. Copyright 2005 by Caroline Lawrence. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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