Had Sabina been born insane, she’d have been smothered or put to the sword because, like it or not, this was the norm. Rome needed to breed healthy, strong and perfect citizens or the empire would be weakened, and any disabilities—mental or physical—were eliminated at birth. With someone like Sabina, the signs might not have been so easy to detect, but there was little compunction in snuffing out a sickly life, even at the age of five or six.
What was going on here?
That Claudia was involved in an elaborate hoax was obvious, but who was the perpetrator? Surely not this strange, ethereal creature? Odd by any standards, yet as far as Claudia could determine, Sabina seemed totally without guile and for a woman practically old enough to be her mother, she behaved more like a small child. Or no. Rather a docile, domesticated pet… Carefully, so as not to disturb Drusilla, Claudia positioned her glass on the floor, but the cat woke on the first movement, instantly alert for the safety of her brood. Satisfied they were still sleeping soundly and could manage a little longer without her, she began to wash, her purring vibrating all the way down Claudia’s breastbone.
‘What do you think, poppet? Have the holy sisters been secreting the Strange One within their enclave?’ Drusilla’s head began to butt Claudia’s chin.
‘That’s what I thought. Since there can only be six at any one time, the Vestals are hardly likely to break their sacred vows, are they? And in any case the woman’s perfectly capable of performing basic rites and rituals.’ Point her in the right direction and she’d obey smartly enough. Silently, yes, but instantly.
She certainly had the unlined face of a celibate, and put it down if you like to the vacant eyes, but Sabina could easily pass for five years younger, a boast few Roman matrons could make. If Claudia had as few grey hairs in twelve years’ time, she’d count herself very lucky indeed.
‘But the most telling thing, Drusilla, is the Vestals lead an indoor life.’
‘Precisely. Their days are either spent tending the Eternal Flame inside that tiny circular temple, or else they’re tucked away in their living quarters next door.’
They appear in public only for certain festivals, so their skins aren’t tanned the way Sabina’s is, nor are their hands rough from work. Their nails would not be short and dirty, their fingers would be as soft as any noblewoman’s.
Which raised another question. Where had Sabina been for thirty years?
‘Suppose Eugenius is the hoaxer?’ she asked a stretching Drusilla, as she turned down the lamp.
The cat jumped soundlessly on to the tiles. ‘Mmmr.’
‘You’re right. Completely out of the question.’
How could he possibly foresee Claudia would only just catch the boat and not denounce the imposter much earlier? Ah, but suppose she isn’t Collatinus’s real granddaughter? Suppose the retiring senior Vestal was the real Sabina? What had happened to her?
Drusilla could be heard finishing off the veal in the darkness, and Claudia cupped her chin in her hands. The warm winds of Africa were redolent with a pungent mix of salt air, spices, wine and meat roasting in the tavern kitchens. The punch line of a joke filtered up above the babble and chatter below, followed by a chorus of such raucous male laughter that the listener was left in little doubt as to the nature of the jest. The atmosphere was heady, intoxicating.
‘Of course I don’t miss Rome, why should I?’ She punched her fist into her bolster. ‘It’s not as though there’s anyone waiting for us.’
Drusilla arched her back and began to rub round Claudia’s ankles.
‘All right, there was that investigator chappie. Whatshisname.’
‘Maybe I do remember his name, so what?’ Claudia sniffed loudly as she threw back her bedcovers. She thought she’d built up something of a rapport with that Orbilio fellow, but she’d neither seen nor heard from him since those grisly murders a few weeks back. ‘He can boil his head in porridge for all I care.’
Two sandals ricocheted off the wall to prove the point.
She had jettisoned all ties with the past in order to wangle herself a wealthy, ageing husband and the new Claudia had emerged like a bright and splendid butterfly, every trace of those dark days kicked over so many times the trail was impossible to follow.
Unless, of course, you were a particularly tenacious member of the Security Police.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. ‘Madam, it’s me. Cypassis.’
What was it with this woodwork that made it so damned attractive to knuckles?
Her big-boned maidservant slipped furtively into the room, carrying the most foul-smelling tallow candle ever to have been moulded. ‘It’s about—’
‘For gods’ sake, girl, put that out.’ Claudia jumped out of bed, flung open the door and fanned new, if not fresh, air into the room. She lit an oil lamp before asking, ‘So?’
The customary dimpled smile had disappeared, and the girl’s eyes were as wide as sieves.
‘It’s Mistress Sabina, madam,’ Cypassis said. ‘She’s disappeared.’