It was a dark and stormy night in the Roman port of Ostia, and Flavia Gemina was in a bad mood.
‘Oh, Pollux!’ she cursed, as she pricked her thumb with a needle. ‘I hate mending. And I especially hate mending by lamplight.’
Through the latticework screen of the bedroom window came a chilly gust of night air. It brought the fresh damp smell of rain and it made the flame of the oil lamp tremble. The wind moaned and a distant rumble of thunder growled ominously.
Flavia squeezed her thumb and watched with grim satisfaction as a bead of blood appeared. ‘That will show pater to ask me to do my own mending. Now his only child is bleeding.’
As Flavia looked up to see what Nubia’s reaction would be, she caught a glimpse of herself in the new hand mirror propped up on her bedside table. It was made of tinned bronze, and was twice as big as her old one. The reflection showed a girl’s scowling face. Framed by long, light brown hair, the face had a largish nose, wide mouth, and grey eyes: dark in the dim light of the oil lamp. Displeased, Flavia gave the table a nudge with her elbow and the mirror fell face down.
Its clatter made Nubia look up. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, grooming her dog Nipur with a boxwood comb. ‘It is better to mend in daylight,’ she said mildly, ‘lest the needle prick you.’
‘I know.’ Flavia squinted down at her mending, ‘but I prefer to use daylight for more important things.’
‘Like reading,’ said Nubia, with a smile.
‘Exactly,’ said Flavia, pushing the needle into the hem of her tunic. ‘I don’t know why pater hired Aristo to teach us Greek if he expects me to spend all day doing needlework. Anyway, Alma should be mending this, not me.’
‘Your pater says every Roman matron should know how to sew and weave.’
‘I hate the word “matron”,’ grumbled Flavia. ‘It sounds so old and stuffy.’
A flash of lightning briefly illuminated the room in eerie silver and black, showing two narrow beds, one with fair-haired Flavia and a golden dog, the other with dark-skinned Nubia and black-furred Nipur. From outside came a deep rumble that ended in a resounding crack of thunder.
At the foot of Flavia’s bed, Scuto lifted his head to give his mistress a reproachful look.
‘Don’t blame me, Scuto,’ said Flavia, without looking up from her mending. ‘This storm isn’t my fault.’
‘I like rain,’ said Nubia, as she worked out a burr from Nipur’s smooth black fur. ‘And I like storms. When you are warm and cozy inside,’ she added. ‘Not when you are outside.’
Suddenly Nipur sat up, growled and gave a single bark.
‘Oh Nipur!’ said Flavia. ‘You’re as bad as Scuto. You’re both as timid as two old mice. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ As she glanced up at him, she saw the shape of a large man filling the doorway.
Flavia gasped, then pressed her hand to her beating heart. ‘Oh, Caudex,’ she said. ‘You nearly frightened us to death!’
‘Sorry,’ mumbled the big door-slave. ‘Only there’s someone here to see you.’
‘Someone here to see us? At this hour?’ Flavia stared at Nubia in disbelief. ‘And in this weather? Isn’t pater back yet?’
Caudex scratched his armpit and shook his head. ‘He and Aristo are still out,’ he said. ‘Besides, the boy is asking for you by name. Says it’s a matter of life and death.’
‘Life and death?’ Flavia looked at Nubia, and for the first time that evening she smiled. ‘That sounds like a mystery.’ Flavia put down her mending and took her wax tablet from the table. ‘Mysteries always cheer me up. Come on, Nubia. Let’s see what our night visitor wants.’
excerpt from 'The Five Barley Grains', a new mini-mystery from The Legionary from Londinium & Other Mini Mysteries, out early March 2010