A Stray Drop of Blood
Beautiful is a dangerous thing to be when one is unprotected.
For seven years, Abigail has been a slave in the Visibullis house. With a Hebrew mistress and a Roman master, she has always been more family than servant . . . until their son returns to Jerusalem after his years in Rome. Within a few months, Jason has taken her to his bed and turned her world upside down. Maybe, given time, she can come to love him as he says he loves her. But how does she open her heart to the man who ruined her?
Israel’s unrest finds a home in her bosom, but their rebellion tears apart her world. Death descends with Barabbas’s sword, and Abigail is determined to be there when the criminal is punished. But when she ventures to the trial, Barabbas is not the one the crowd calls to crucify. Instead, it is the teacher her master and Jason had begun to follow, the man from Nazareth that some call the Son of God . . .
Born free, made a slave, married out of her bonds, Abigail never knows freedom until she feels the fire of a stray drop of blood from a Jewish carpenter. Disowned by Israel, despised by Rome, desired by all, she never knows love until she receives the smile of a stoic Roman noble.
Abigail’s tears were unneeded. Mourners enough had been hired by her mother’s husband, and their loud keening drowned out her grief. She risked a glance at Silas, who stood with an appropriately sorrowful expression in the corner. Her mother’s husband, but not her father. Her father was dead. Mother too. And this family would never be her own.
She turned to the doorway, where Rebekka, Silas’s first wife, beckoned. Abigail darted one last look at the body laid out on the table, but her mother could offer her no protection now. She left the room, following Rebekka’s voice down the hall. “She is eight years old. Very strong–she gets that from her father. But beautiful, as her mother was.”
Even at eight years old, Abigail recognized the jealousy in Rebekka’s tone at the mention of Mother’s beauty. She stepped into the room, felt her head go light when she saw the man within.
A Roman soldier.
Rebekka motioned her forward, and though she wanted to remain rooted in place, she dared not. One step, another, and she was under the Roman’s full perusal. Deafening silence pounded her until the man nodded and reached to the money purse on his belt. Her fingers clenched, her breath caught, her eyes ceased blinking. If possible, she would have stopped her heart from beating.
Had it come to this? First her father’s death, then her mother’s, and now she was to be slave to a Roman dog?
The man drew out several coins, but as he handed them to Rebekka, he offered Abigail a smile. And she knew. She knew that she would have more of a home with this Roman than with these people she could never call family.
Something inside shifted, making her shoulders edge back. That place from where tears sprang went cool, ran dry. An image of a cracked, parched streambed flitted before her eyes. That was what she would be. Hard and empty. If her own people would sell her to their oppressors, then so be it. She would be a humble slave. No more whimsy, no more dreams.
It was obviously what God intended.
“Does she speak Greek?” The man’s gaze stayed on Abigail, though his words were aimed at Rebekka.
“Of course. She is a bright girl, able to obey any command.”
He nodded, offered that smile to Abigail again. Strange . . . it wasyounger than his dignified years suggested, not unlike those of the boys who ran the streets. And kinder than any Roman’s smile had a right to be. “What is your name, little one?”
“Abigail.” Her voice sounded flat to her own ears. Barely more than a breath.
He crouched down, much like her father had once done when he wanted to speak to her. “Well, Abigail, you are to be my wife’s helper. She is a Hebrewess and wishes for a young girl to teach and keep her company. You will enjoy spending your days by her side.”
Enjoyment? Perhaps Roman masters could speak of such a thing, but Abigail had long ago given up on it. Ever since Father’s death, there had been no joy to be had.
Her eyes sought the ground and stayed there as she followed him out into the early-morning bustle of Jerusalem. With every step that took her farther away from all that she knew, her heart grew heavier. Only God knew what her future held now, and he had never shown her any favor.
But he would not forsake her, no matter how much she may wish it. Mother had died a loyal child of Jehovah, and Abigail knew no better end awaited her. The Lord would not relinquish her. Even if the Roman had not come, she still would have been a slave to him.
Cleopas Visibullis glanced at the waif that trailed behind him and fought back the urge to scoop her up and carry her the remaining distance to his home. Ester would take one look at her and admit her into her heart as a daughter. The thought made him smile. He had known when she begged him to go see about the girl for sale that if he brought her home, it would be as a slave only in the loosest sense.
But with Jason bound for Rome this afternoon, his wife would need the distraction. A companion. The impending departure not only erased his smile, it brought a pounding in his head. In some ways, he knew Rome would do his impetuous son good. But in others . . . would he even recognize him if or when he returned?
They skirted the Praetorium, where Cleopas had served as prefect for two years now. Even before the promotion, he had been a soldier of import. Hence why his home abutted the compound. As they walked, citizens of Jerusalem moved to the other side of the street to avoid him, all Hebrew gazes flicked away.
He cast a glance over his shoulder. The girl still stared at the ground as she kept pace, but she surely knew that the moment she entered his house, her culture would by necessity change. Not as drastically as she may think in this moment, but no one would ever look at her the same, if they looked at her at all.
Simon opened the door for him as they neared, and Cleopas greeted the loyal servant with a nod. “Ester is in her chamber?”
“Yes, Lord, as is your son.”
He nodded again and motioned the girl to follow him. Angry voices sounded as they neared the bed chamber’s door. His wife’s first. “You will not speak that way, Jason. He will be back in a matter of minutes–”
“He should not have left today in the first place. Buying a slave on the day his only son leaves? It is Simon’s duty.”
“I asked him–”
Cleopas halted the argument with a cleared throat. Ester sat with a brush in hand, eyes glistening with unshed tears, and looked to him with hope. Jason let out a growl and charged past him in the doorway, nearly knocking the girl from her feet.
He would deal with his son in a moment. For now, he ushered the girl forward with a hand on her shoulder. “Beloved, this is Abigail.”
His wife’s eyes lit, and she held out her hands. Though she looked awe-struck and terrified, the mite stepped forward. Ester smiled. “Abigail. A fine, strong name. First the wife of Nabal, but too wise for such a wicked man. After his death, she married David. It is good to meet you, Abigail. I am Ester.”
Abigail dipped her chin, but her spine straightened. “An excellent namesake as well, Mistress. A wiser, better queen has never been recorded in all the history of our people.”
His wife laughed and tapped a finger to the little one’s nose. “You know your history. Excellent. I shall teach you more, and we shall discover much together. You will be well taken care of, Abigail.”
The girl nodded, but a tremble moved through her lips. Ester leaned forward and cupped her face with what looked to be the gentlest of touches. “I am sorry you are no longer free, that you have lost your parents. But I am glad you are here.” She looked intently into Abigail’s face, undoubtedly seeing into the depths of her pain. She gathered her close in the next moment. “My sweet child.”
The slight shoulders shook, and sobs tore from her throat. He caught Ester’s gaze, gave her a tender smile, and motioned to the door. She had the girl well in hand. It was time to try to do the same with his son.
He found him in his chamber, looking out the window at the busy street. Cleopas paused in the doorway without making himself known. His boy had grown up, stood at a man’s height, had a man’s strength. But the wisdom had yet to come.
“I am sorry I was not back sooner, Jason.”
Jason spun around, a wry smile on his lips. “I should not have grown angry. It is but the first hour. Did I upset Mother?”
“If so, she is soothing her wounds by lavishing adoration on our new little handmaiden.” He sighed and joined his son at the window. A few soldiers hurried by, as well they should be. They were late for the morning drills. “I train soldiers every day, Jason. I could have trained you here.”
His son shook his head. “We agreed that Rome would be a better option, Father. I can attend the academies there, check on our family’s property. Learn of our culture and escape this oppressive Judaism while learning to be a soldier.”
“Please do not speak ill of your mother’s faith. You are part Hebrew, and you will do well to remember it.”
“I have been submersed in it all my life.” Jason waved a hand, as if to dismiss it all. “The Jews will never accept me because of my Roman blood. Perhaps the Romans will overlook the Hebrew part and I will finally find a place for myself.”
“I could regain the status of your grandfather. Our reputation. Expand our estates.”
The very thought wearied him. “I would that you just safely return to your mother’s arms.”
Jason’s lips twitched up. “Rest assured I will see you both again, Father. Perhaps someday I will even serve with you.”
He would do all he could to make sure of it.
Abigail found that Simon was surprisingly friendly; then again, he had no reason to feel threatened by an eight-year-old girl whose main purpose in the house was to be Mistress’s entertainment. So it made sense that he welcomed her into the kitchen with warmth.
“You, of course, will have little need to know the particular goings-on in here,” he said with a smile. “At least for a while.”
Abigail sent her gaze around the room. There was a woman rushing about in preparation for the soon-coming meal, the fire roaring in its place, and a table laden with a bounty that she told her mouth she would not taste.
“My wife, Dinah.” Simon motioned to the cook. “I will introduce you when it is less hectic. For now, I will take you to meet Andrew. He serves the master, so it is imperative that the two of you learn to work well together.”
Abigail nodded. She even voiced her question. “Are there only the four of us?”
“There is also Mark, but he will leave this eve with his lord, Jason.” Simon led them through the kitchen, to a brief hallway accessible through it. “Your room is through here. It exits also into the corridor directly outside Mistress’s chamber. For now it is your own, but if ever another female is brought, you will of course have to share.”
Abigail nodded again; they did not stop at the door he pointed at in indication, but rather went to the next one down. He tapped upon the door and waited the two seconds it took to be opened.
A young man stepped out, girded to serve. He looked surprised to see his fellow servant. “Simon.”
Simon smiled. “Andrew, this is Abigail. She is replacing Hadassah in our lady’s service. I thought she should meet you before the meal.”
Andrew nodded and offered her a friendly smile. “This is a good house to belong to. I came here when but a child myself, and I have chosen to serve my lord for life.” He offered a view of his pierced ear as proof, the ring in it matching the one Simon had in his own.
Her new Roman master obeyed Jewish tradition with his servants? Though surprised, she said nothing. Instead, she simply offered a small smile and went into her own room when Simon opened the door.
“Go ahead and change.” He indicated the tunic folded neatly on the pallet in the closet. “Once dressed appropriately, come back to the kitchen. You will serve our lady today.”
He closed the door again behind her, leaving Abigail alone for a moment with her thoughts. She looked around the quarters with a strange contentment. Here she was with a room of her own, people that welcomed her, and, if nothing else, a degree of security. It was more than she had ever had before.
It took her only a minute to shed her clothes of mourning and slip into the rough material that she knew she would have to get used to. Moving back to the kitchen, however, she found that it was actually a comfortable garment to move around in. That at least was helpful. As to the task she was about to undertake . . .
“Just do not drop anything,” Dinah whispered in a voice that reminded Abigail strongly of her mother. She immediately pushed the resemblance aside and focused instead on the words. “Mirror Andrew, and you will be fine. We send out a platter for each of them. Mark will take the one for Jason, Andrew the one for the master, and you the one for the mistress. Offer it as he does and be sure to keep her glass full. Otherwise, just stand there and be available.”
Abigail nodded and accepted the platter that was placed in her hand. Dinah put a hand on her shoulder to keep her back while the menservants went through the portal into the family’s dining area, then gave her a gentle push to follow after them.
The tray was heavy; it was strength of pride rather than body that kept her from dropping it. But she managed even to keep it steady as Ester took the portions she desired, smiling.
She followed Andrew and Mark back out of the room moments later. They exchanged their trays for towels and pitchers.
“I will pour for our lady,” Andrew said to Abigail. “The wine is still a bit heavy for you, I think.”
Abigail wanted to say that she would manage, but she did not. She had been here for perhaps an hour, he for nearly a decade. And he looked as though he only wanted to be kind. So she muttered her gratitude and followed him once again into the outer room.
“You know that Caesar has never cared too much for our family,” Cleopas was saying dryly to his son. “It was Augustus who decided we were not equal to our reputation, but I do not look for Tiberius to be any different.”
“But I thought you got along well with Tiberius.” Jason took a lazy sip from the freshly filled glass.
“That was many years ago, before he and his mother got it into their heads that he should succeed Augustus.”
“Well, if I were even the adopted son of the divine Augustus–”
“Jason!” Ester’s displeasure crackled through the air like a living spark. “I will not tolerate such heresy in this household. Caesar is no more divine than–”
“Father, please.” Jason turned frustrated eyes to his father. “Tell Mother that as a Roman–”
“No.” Both voices of argument died at his word. “We will not argue today. Tomorrow, Jason, you will have only your conscience to guide your beliefs. But today, you will respect your mother. Ester, have you attended to what we discussed?”
Ester nodded and turned to empty-handed Abigail. “Abigail, go to my chamber. Under the couch you will find a wrapped parcel. Bring it to me, please.”
Abigail wasted no time. She easily found the chamber again, and the package was right where she was told it would be. But her thoughts were elsewhere. Where exactly, she could not say. Somewhere in the past, perhaps back so far as to when her father yet lived. Perhaps she was remembering what it felt like to be in a house where Caesar was spoken of only as the monster he surely was. Perhaps she was remembering simply her own father, and how he reprimanded her with that loving reproach.
Perhaps it was useless to even think about the past. She went back to the outer room with the object in her hands, handed it over, and then retreated to the wall.
Jason’s attention was surely piqued, but to his credit, he waited patiently for whatever gift lay under the wrappings to be given with introduction.
Cleopas cleared his throat. “Your mother and I know that this is the time when we need to let you go, son, to make your own way in the world. You are a man now. And while I will hope, pray, and pull whatever strings necessary to see you back here,” he paused to exchange a grin with his son, “there is still the possibility that you will fall in love with Rome.”
“Or some lady there,” Ester added with a twinkle in her eye.
Jason rolled his own but did not interrupt.
“Since we have no daughter, what remains of your mother’s dowry will go to you when you wed. We do not want to burden you with too much, so we selected these few things to send with you now.”
Ester handed their son a smallish wooden box, ornate in engravings that pictured the ark of the covenant. Jason barely glanced at the lid. He flipped it open and drew out a heavy chain of gold with a pendant of surprising wealth hanging from the end. It was a large ruby, which complemented the words Ester recited as she watched him withdraw it.
“‘Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. . . Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.’”
Jason ignored the proverb and pulled out the other object.
“It was my father’s,” Ester offered by way of explanation when he slipped the ring onto his finger.
Jason met his mother’s eyes. “I did not realize that your family had such wealth.”
Ester held his gaze steadily for a moment before answering. “My father was once high priest of the synagogue. When I married your father, he would have no more to do with me.”
“But this jewelry–”
“Was his method of paying me to stay away.” She averted her gaze. “He was a hard man, but a good one. I am sorry that he died before you could meet him; I have a feeling he would have taken you under his wing as though you were his son, rather than that of the daughter he claimed not to have.”
Jason ran his tongue over his lips, looking at a loss for words. Cleopas smiled softly and apparently decided to take pity on him. “Have you sent your belongings to Steven yet? He asked that they arrive before you so the caravan would be ready to leave upon your arrival.”
Jason stood, tucking the closed box under his arm. “I will see to it now, sir.”
Cleopas held Ester’s gaze for a moment longer, then got up to join their son.
“Two days’ journey to Joppa,” Ester whispered in a voice low enough for only Abigail to hear. “And then the sail to Rome.” Her gaze was on the seat that Jason had just vacated. “So long before I will even know if he arrived safely. So long before I see my son again.”
Abigail was shocked to see her small hand on Mistress’s shoulder and to hear her voice whispering just as softly, “‘Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.’ ‘For in thee, O Lord, do I hope: thou wilt hear, O Lord my God.’”
Ester’s gaze was still focused on the absent, but her hand came up to engulf Abigail’s. “‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.’” Their gazes met, and a smile even crept onto her face. “We will learn a lot in these coming years, you and I. And when Jason returns, he will find two women worth more than any jewels that bedeck the finger of Caesar.”
Abigail did not smile, but her face relaxed. It was more than she could imagine right now, growing up beside this woman. So many changes . . . only two days ago her mother had been alive, eager to tell Silas the news of their new child; now Abigail was an orphaned slave who had not even seen her mother into the tomb. How could she possibly see far enough into the future to visualize herself as a woman? How could she survive the night, alone in that unfamiliar chamber that moments ago she had thought wonderful? How could she even now keep the tears at bay?
“I understand that your loss is far greater than mine, Abigail.” Ester tilted her head up with a gentle finger. “I may be parting with my son, but he will return. You do not have that hope. And while nothing can replace a mother, I will do all I can to comfort you. We shall help each other through these times.” She smiled. “Take the rest of the day to rest. Our house will be busy with Jason’s departure, but there is no reason for you to get involved. Tomorrow I will have Simon knock to be sure you are awake with the others, and he will instruct you in the daily preparations.”
Abigail nodded and took a step back as Ester rose from her seat. “I will see you in the morning,” the elder said in farewell, leaving the room with grace that Abigail knew she could never muster.
She made her way back to her room but did not immediately close the door, as there were no windows to provide light. A lamp sat on the floor, but she had no desire for illumination. So she took a moment to look again at the space, her eyes finding first the other portal directly across from her. She fully intended to open it soon, just so she would know exactly where it let her out. But not yet. First she would take a nap; sleep had been impossible the night before. She took another second to notice the crudely fashioned chest, small but sturdy, in the corner, the only other object in the room. Then she closed the door and let herself drop down on the pallet, settling down with her eyes closed tightly against reality.
“Father Jehovah,” she prayed almost silently, “I know you are with me still. And since you will never forsake me, I ask only that you have mercy on your servant. I realize I will never be a man nor even free, but what I am is your doing.” Sensing that if she said any more it would be more accusation than worship, she ended quickly and determined to fall asleep.
A Stray Drop of Blood$9.99 – $29.99
Andrew took his master’s sword as Cleopas reached for a water skin. The men emptied from the training field, headed for their midday meal. Andrew relaxed his stance for the first time that day and cast his gaze toward the Visibullis house. From this distance, he could barely make out the figures on the rooftop. Ester would be the one pacing, Abigail the small dot sitting down.
Cleopas looked that way too, and his lips curved up. “Ester says their lessons are going well.”
Andrew barely contained a laugh. “Abigail says it is useless to teach a slave girl as if she were son of the high priest.”
His master’s brows arched, amusement in the quirk. “Our Abigail said that? To you?”
“To Dinah.” He shook his head and looked toward the females again. In the year she had been with them, Abigail had yet to share so big a piece of her mind with anyone but Dinah. Strange as it seemed, he would have sworn it was pride that kept her so humble with the rest of them.
“Well, she shall have to get used to it, my wife will settle for nothing less than a daughter to instruct.” Mischief combined with merriment in Cleopas’s eyes. “Perhaps I shall take a role in her schooling as well. If she is learning Greek and Hebrew so well, she ought to learn Latin, ought she not?”
Andrew shifted uncomfortably. It was no great secret that his command of his master’s language was minimal, in spite of the lessons Cleopas had given him. “Certainly she would benefit from your tutelage, Lord.”
“You will sit in on them too, Andrew. More structured, regular lessons will help you as well.”
Andrew swallowed back the desire to groan and focused on his gratefulness for a master who took such interest in them. “I am honored by your attention, Lord.”
Cleopas chuckled, proving he was not fooled. A commotion behind them stopped any response he may have made, however.
A glance that direction had Andrew stepping back into his place behind his master, reaching for his waterskin as subtly as possible. The unmistakable plume of the general towered over the milling soldiers, headed their way. Andrew focused on invisibility while Cleopas straightened to his full height and snapped to attention. “Good day, General.”
“Cleopas.” The general stopped beside them with a slight smile. “Your men are in good form. At this rate, we shall inspire Caesar to expansion once again.”
Cleopas chuckled and relaxed his shoulders a bit. “Not unless Augustus’s will has changed overnight. Tiberius would never disobey it.”
The general grunted and shifted from one foot to another. “I trust you have heard that my wife has joined me here.”
“Of course. Is she settling in well?”
“She complains of being lonely. When she learned that my prefect was married, she immediately requested that you and your wife join us for dinner on the morrow. I promised to do all in my power to convince you.”
Andrew sucked in an unobtrusive breath as Cleopas’s shoulders edged back. In all his time in the Visibullis house, Andrew could not recall an occasion when any of his master’s Roman friends had made an overture to include the mistress in their social gatherings. And given that all of her Hebrew family had disowned her upon marrying Cleopas, she had become an expert on loneliness.
“We would be happy to join you.” Cleopas’s voice sounded even, undoubtedly confident to the general. But Andrew heard the thickness beneath the words.
Perhaps a new season was upon them.
Abigail stared at her master without blinking.
Cleopas looked to be battling back a grin. “I know you are capable, Abigail. What are your objections?”
She focused her gaze the ground, as she made it a point to do when she spoke. “I simply do not wish to disappoint you, Master. But your servant is of small mind.”
Cleopas laughed, which brought her gaze back to his for half a moment. “If ever there was a child of greater mind, Abigail, I have yet to find her. Ester has kept me updated on your progress this past year, and she is very pleased. You, my child, have a strong mind, and you learn quickly. For example: how long has it been since you began your studies of written Greek?”
“One month, Master.”
“One month. And already you can read the letters I have provided and translate them into written Hebrew.”
“My mother taught me both languages, Master.”
“The spoken versions, though, correct?”
Cleopas turned to Andrew, who stood with a muted grin in the corner of the room. “Andrew, did you grow up speaking both Greek and Hebrew?”
“And have you learned the written forms?”
“Not well. I know enough to carry out your business.”
“And how long since I began tutoring you?”
“Five years, Lord.”
“Well then.” Cleopas turned back to Abigail. “Either I am a miserable teacher in comparison with my beloved wife, or you, Abigail, have a mind for learning. Which do you think, Andrew?”
Andrew smiled at the verbal trap. “I believe that Mistress is a splendid tutor and Abigail a quick learner both; moreover, I hold that Abigail will learn just as quickly under your direction.”
There was no point in arguing further, if argument was even a proper name for the small objection she had raised upon interrogation. She dutifully took her place at the table in the kitchen and waited for the two men to get settled. Truth be told, she knew she could learn the language. But she should not. Ester had started their relationship as one more appropriate for a mother and daughter, but Abigail knew she was not in that position. It did not matter that the woman had given her softer, more becoming clothing; it did not matter that she instructed her in the arts of womanhood, as well as lessons that should be left to free men. She was a slave girl. It was the portion the Lord had given her. Why try to pretend otherwise?
“Shall we begin with verb conjugations?” Cleopas asked.
“Yes, Master,” she replied. “Are they similar to the Greek?”
“Somewhat.” His eyes went to his other student, who squirmed as if in pain. Cleopas smiled. “Let us begin.”
“Mistress, I will never finish your hair if you do not sit still.” Abigail bit back a smile and put a calming hand on Ester’s shoulder. The lady’s excitement mounted with every moment, but the complicated Roman style she had desired for her hair would never be finished at this rate. It was difficult enough to begin with.
“Sorry.” Ester chuckled but held herself still. “I am nervous. All these years, I have been alone, and now I do not know how to identify myself. What if they see the Roman style and think me pretentious? Or if they eye my Hebrew dress and decide I am out of mode? Will they think my jewels–”
“Mistress.” Abigail put the pin she had held back onto the table and wrapped her arms around Ester. “What they will see is a woman of great beauty. And they will be pleased to see you trying to show how pleasing you are to be seen with.”
As Abigail had hoped, Ester laughed, gave her a quick hug, and drew in a steadying breath. “Well said, little one. Your mind amazes me daily.”
“I am but your humble servant.”
Ester snorted and turned for her hair to be finished. “So you say. Now, let us finish so that you can change. I have a belt for you, so that we match.”
“I will complement you as best I can.” She picked up one of the last free lengths of hair, coiled it. Wrapped it into the space she’d left on Ester’s head, and pinned it until it was secure. Then she picked up the headpiece of gold that her mistress had chosen and slipped it over her head from ear to ear. “Mistress . . . what will I be doing tonight?”
It was not a question she would usually dare to ask, but she had no desire to make a fool of herself or the woman she had come to adore.
Ester hummed. “I do not know. In all likelihood, they will have servants to perform your usual tasks. Unless they provide other instruction, let us say you should remain close to me to serve in the ways only you know how to do.”
With a dip of her head, Abigail fastened Ester’s ornate necklace and then stood back to survey her work. “I will make you proud, Mistress. If they care to look, they will see that your handmaiden serves you out of love.”
Ester placed a soft hand on Abigail’s cheek. “And if they look further, they will see the mistress loves her servant. Now run along, little one, and put on your linen tunic. Then I will brush your hair.”
She had long ago given up arguing about that, since Ester derived such pleasure from it. After a nod, she slipped out, into her closet, and quickly changed.
Within the hour, the family set off into Jerusalem. Abigail took her place beside Andrew, behind the Visibullis couple. Ester traveled a half step behind Cleopas, but still he defied custom by constantly turning his face around to converse with her. Perhaps in Rome they were not so strict about such things.
For a moment, Abigail simply admired the sway of her mistress’s hips, the graceful stride with which she moved. But Andrew snagged her attention with a clearing of his throat, and her gaze moved up to him.
He offered a tight smile. “Be careful tonight, little one. I do not believe the master mentioned it to the mistress, but the general’s wife specifically asked for them to bring us so that she might see what kind of maidservants are to be had from among our people.”
Abigail frowned up at her fellow servant. “Should I behave any differently than usual?”
“No, but I wanted you to be aware. Our house . . . they treat us better than most. They recognize us as people, as individuals. In all likelihood you will be studied tonight as a piece of merchandise, and you are not accustomed to that. I did not want you to be surprised.”
She nodded, but her mind flitted back to the cold, hard gazes of Silas and Rebekka. True, she had only been in their household for a year, but even when Mother lived, Abigail had received worse treatment from them than at the hand of these, her legal masters.
Andrew drifted a step closer. “Do you miss your mother much?”
Was she so transparent? Gaze on the ground again, Abigail saw no reason to lie. He could undoubtedly see the sheen of tears in her eyes anyway. “I do. And my father, who died a year before she did.”
“And then your mother remarried?”
Small clouds of dirt puffed up with every step of their feet. “My father’s friend. We were in debt to him and he . . . Mother said if she did not marry him, he would have taken all we had. I had no brother, no uncles to care for us. We would have been left as beggars if we had not gone to Silas’s house. So the day her mourning was complete, they wedded.”
Andrew sucked in a breath that sounded as outraged as she felt. “So soon?”
A short nod confirmed it. “His first wife was displeased, jealous. Mother was very beautiful.”
“I suppose that is why she sold you.”
“Yes.” Her gaze went to the backs of Ester and Cleopas, and warmth surged up inside her. “I am blessed that it was the master who came.”
“You are indeed.” Andrew’s tone was low, serious enough to tell Abigail he spoke of something she did not quite understand.
The walk to the general’s house was short, though on the other side of the Praetorium. Many soldiers of the Tenth Legion were out and about on the streets, all showing deference to the man in charge of their training as they passed him. Cleopas acknowledged each as if he knew them by name, by face.
Abigail suspected he did. A man to take such an interest in his slave’s education surely gave even greater respect to the free men under his command.
When they arrived at the massive abode that housed the general, Abigail followed Andrew’s lead and headed to the kitchen at the rear of the house.
A dour-faced man received them. “The bulk of the serving will be done by our staff,” he said as he made a motion to a girl behind him. “Since you know your masters best, stay by their sides and we will deliver food and drink into your hands.”
His eyes narrowed upon Abigail. She fought the urge to squirm and instead squared her shoulders. He sniffed. “Although perhaps we ought to provide a maidservant for the lady?”
Andrew’s hand landed with comforting weight upon her shoulder. “Abigail is strong. She handles everything herself.”
She could not have said why his confidence in her warmed a frozen place inside.
Ester followed her hostess outside into the well-appointed courtyard, happy to escape the talk of politics that the men had turned to. She knew her husband was enjoying the chance to socialize with others more recently from Rome–after twenty years in Israel, and ten in Gaul before that, Cleopas undoubtedly missed the customs of his home. But he had chosen to let her run their house in the Hebrew tradition, which meant that his were still largely unfamiliar to her.
Several moments throughout the night, she had felt the difference of her world and his. In things as small as the stola Julia wore over her tunic to the vast difference in their outlooks.
Ester settled onto a stone bench, softened with colorful cushions that a servant undoubtedly took inside every night, and motioned for Abigail to take up her position behind her. She would have liked to urge the girl onto the pillow at her side–would have, had they been home–but refrained. Julia would not approve, and Abigail would feel it.
Julia’s maidservant had also followed them out, but the hostess waved her away with an abrupt flick of her wrist. The girl, probably twice Abigail’s age, slunk back inside. Julia sighed. “That girl is such a nuisance. I brought her with me from Rome, but she has done nothing but mope since we arrived. I begin to think she had a lover there she did not tell me about.”
Ester hummed but made no other reply. Perhaps she ought to comment on the lovely jeweled collar Julia wore. Anything to turn the conversation from the servant’s personal life.
Julia’s eyes turned to Abigail. “How long have you had your girl?”
“Abigail has been with me for a year.” Hopefully her soft smile would prove she was more than just a girl to her.
“Only that long? She is very well trained. From whom did you purchase her?”
Ester shifted, turned slightly so that Abigail would not feel like a shadow behind her. “The poor dear was orphaned, and her guardians could not keep her. Thankfully, Cleopas heard of it and brought her home to me. I have been very blessed to have her.”
“She is a pretty child. I have always thought that important–who wants to look at a homely creature every day? So long as they do not think themselves above their stations because of their looks.” She narrowed her gaze on Abigail. “Do you dress her so well to entertain yourself, or is she already showing signs of arrogance?”
Ester felt her spine go rigid. “It is Hebrew tradition to treat fellow Israelites with compassion. Especially orphaned children, even if they are slaves. Moses says they are in their position only because of an unfortunate turn, not because they are worth any less than the rest of us.”
Julia’s face reflected apology and youth. Ester was reminded of the decade she had on her hostess, of the relatively new marriage to the general. “I am sorry,” her hostess said, voice soft. “The custom in Rome is quite different, and I am not very familiar with the ways of the Jews. I pray you will be patient with me and help me learn the customs of your people. I will need the education, if I am to survive here for any length of time.”
Ester relaxed again. “I will be glad to help. And perhaps you can teach me more of the ways of Rome. Cleopas and I have not had the opportunity to return to his home.”
She was rewarded by Julia’s bright, young smile. “I would be honored. Thank you.”
Ester let a relieved breath ease slowly from her lungs. Finally, after twenty years of marriage, she had made a Roman friend.
A Stray Drop of Blood$9.99 – $29.99