"My pleasure, dear." Alma turned to hang her cloak on a peg fixed to the wall behind her. "Why don't you four go and tidy up the dining room? Leave the kitchen to Caudex and me. We'll get everything ready. If one of you could just bring a broom, Caudex can sweep up these shards of clay."
Beside her, Flavia's big door slave yawned and nodded.
"It's a mess in here, too," said Flavia to Jonathan a few minutes later, as they entered the dining room.
"Your house is not being of the tidy," Nubia agreed. She had been in Italia for only eight months, and her Latin was not yet fluent.
"I know," Jonathan said. He had taken a piece of flatbread from the kitchen and now he tore off a chunk with his teeth. "Cleaning is usually my job, but I've had to be the cook, too, since Miriam left. Sometimes we get dinner from the tavern by the Baths of Thetis, but the food is nowhere near as good as Miriam's. I wish Father would let us keep slavesoh, sorry, Nubia! I forgot you used to be a slave."
"I do not mind," said Nubia. She plumped one of the embroidered floor cushions. "I am not a slave any more."
"I'm glad we have slaves to do all the chores," said Flavia, as she brushed crumbs from the low octagonal table in the middle of the dining room. "I don't know how we'd manage without Alma and Caudex. It's a shame your father has such strange ideas."
Behind them, Lupus was lighting hanging oil lamps with a thin taper. It was a late afternoon in February, and already the light was draining from the sky.
"And that's another thing," said Jonathan through his mouthful. "It's the Sabbath, and there should be a woman to light the candles." He gestured with his bread at the unlit candles on the table. "And to say the blessing."
"Maybe Miriam can say it when she gets here," said Flavia. "I can't wait to see her!"
"She's not coming," said Jonathan.
"But it is your father's birthday!" said Nubia.
"She hasn't had the fever. Neither has Gaius. Father sent them a message telling them not to come into Ostia until the epidemic is over."
Flavia and Nubia exchanged a glance. "But we haven't seen her or Gaius since the wedding last month," said Flavia. "We really wanted to see them."
"I know." Jonathan sighed. "I miss her, too."
"Stew's ready," said Alma, putting her head into the dining room. "Shall I bring it in?"
"Not yet," said Flavia. "The guest of honour still isn't back. Where could your father be?" she asked. "It's almost dark."
"He's out tending the sick," said Jonathan. "As usual."
"He tends sick on the birthday?" asked Nubia.
"Yes," sighed Jonathan. "Though he's usually back by dusk on the Sabbath."
Flavia's eyes grew wide. "You don't think he's caught the fever, do you?"
"Probably," said Jonathan. "In fact, I'm amazed he hasn't caught it before now. He's probably lying in a gutter somewhere, moaning for his loved ones . . ."
"Who's lying in a gutter?" said an accented voice.
"Father!" Jonathan spun round. And then: "Father?"
A tall, clean-shaven Roman in a white tunic stood in the doorway of the dining room. His heavy-lidded dark eyes gleamed with amusement.
Jonathan's jaw dropped. "Great Neptune's beard, Father! What have you done to yourself?"
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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