I.

 

 

Abigail stoically warded off the tears, telling herself that there were enough mourners hired. They did not need her to grieve. So what if it was her mother? They did not care. She had become his wife, and as soon as she had, she ceased to be anything else.Silas stood in the corner of the room, and her gaze brushed his. He was her mother’s husband, not her father. Her father was dead. And while his friend may have married his widow, her mother, that little bargain did not include her. Not really. And she knew he felt the same way.

Now Sarah, her mother, was dead. Abigail knew she had no place in this home. Silas had another wife, children of his own. She had never belonged here.

"Abigail, come with me."

Abigail turned at the sound of her stepmother’s voice from the doorway. With one last glance at her mother’s lifeless body and a scalding one aimed at Sarah’s second husband, she left the room.

Rebekka was already in another room, and the child followed her voice. "She is eight years old," she was saying. "Very strong. She gets that from her father’s side. But beautiful, too. That came from her mother."

"Mistress Rebekka?" Abigail asked, a fearful complexion washing what color there was left from her cheeks. She did not know the man standing in the room, but it was obvious by his dress and hair that he was a Roman.

"Here she is," Rebekka said to the man, beckoning her into the room with a swift hand motion.

Abigail wanted to hold her ground in the doorway but knew that doing so would be asking for punishment. She moved to the woman’s side, forcing her head to stay up, her eyes unclouded.

There was a moment of deafening silence while the stranger looked at her intently. Then he nodded, reaching into his belt and pulling out money.

Abigail stilled immediately, her fingers unclenching, her breath held in, her eyes unblinking. If able, she would have stopped her heart from beating. She was an intelligent girl. This was not so hard to decipher.

"Am I to be a Roman’s slave?"

The woman seemed shocked to hear her voice, and a hand reached out to slap her. Rebekka then said through clenched teeth to her guest, "Humility is one lesson she has yet to learn."

To Abigail’s surprise, the man smiled, and it was not unpleasant. "Such lessons will come." His eyes locked on Abigail then, and while she still drew back from being sold into slavery, she knew she would have more of a home with any Roman than with these people she could never call family. It was at that moment that something in her changed, shifted, shrunk. The last shred of a carefree childhood was cut, leaving an unraveling ball of unmet expectation inside her. If her own people could sell her to their oppressors, make her a slave, cast her out, then let her be what they all thought. If they wanted to see humility, she could do that. She could be the humble slave. That was obviously what God intended.

The man studied Abigail, but his question was obviously addressed to the lady of the house. "Does she speak Greek?"

"Of course," the woman responded immediately.

He nodded and asked in that language, "What is your name?" Rebekka was clearly taken aback that he would deem her worthy to speak for herself in such a dealing.

"Abigail," she replied, her voice hard and cold–too much so for such a small child.

He smiled and dismissed Rebekka with a nod, shocking her still further. Then he took Abigail’s hand and led her out into the bustling streets of Jerusalem.

It was the first day of the week, only the first hour, but activity was in possession of every person they passed by. No one paused to look at the prefect, much less the unimpressive waif that traveled a step behind him. If anything, the citizens of Jewry went out of their way to avoid that man who was a symbol of the chains they all bore.

Abigail allowed her mind to be drawn away by the chaotic chorus of sounds. It was with some surprise when she heard the voice of the Roman address her, even more so when she looked up to see that he was slowing so that he could better see and speak to her.

"You are to be my wife’s helper," he said, smiling again. His dark eyes had a lively dance in their depths, a life she knew had not been in her own for the past year. "She is also a Hebrew and wished for a young girl of her own faith to assist her." His smile turned into an outright grin, almost boyish in its nature, though he was clearly a man of dignified years. "I suspect she wishes a daughter more than a servant. You will be well cared for, Abigail."

She did not reply, did not even take her gaze from the ground before her. But she knew that her God had not forsaken her, no matter how much she wished he had. Then she could have hoped for a better end than her mother, who died a loyal child of Jehovah. Bitter now, she sighed. The Lord would not relinquish her. Even if the Roman had not come, she still would be a slave to him.

 

"Where is Father?" the boy asked, demanded, anger in his eyes as he cornered his mother in her chamber.

She glanced up briefly, then went back to brushing her lengths of raven hair. "Purchasing a slave to replace Hadassah."

He snarled. "Buying a slave? On the eve his son leaves for Rome, he is buying a slave? That is what Simon is for."

"Calm yourself, Jason." She was obviously not disturbed by her son’s impetuousness. "I asked him to go himself. Simon has poor judgement in such areas."

"So replace him." He sat heavily on his mother’s chaise.

"His is loyal and good, my son. There is not need."

"But–"

"Ester, Jason," came a voice from the doorway. They both looked up.

"Cleopas," Ester said lovingly, spotting the girl behind him.

"It is about time," Jason muttered with considerable less affection.

Cleopas Visibullis pierced his son with a warning glance and motioned the child forward. "Ester, beloved, this is Abigail."

Abigail had never seen a room like the one she stepped into. She tried not to look awestruck–everyone knew that Cleopas, a strong and accomplished camp prefect, had a house greater than any she knew; she felt no need to prove it to them again.

With barely a glance in her direction, Jason stormed from the room. Ester exchanged a look with her husband, their frustrations, fears, and hopes all going unspoken but understood. Then the woman beckoned the girl nearer with a graceful hand, a smile matching on her face.

"Abigail," Ester said gently, testing the name as she placed a hand on her shoulder. "A good, strong name. First the wife of Nabal, but she proved too great for such a monster and was therefore, because of her wisdom, wed by King David upon her husband’s death. It is a name to live up to."

Abigail was quite aware of her namesake and thought she might as well return the lesson. "As is yours, my lady; another queen so wise and gentle has never been heard of. Ester saved all of our people from the heathens."

Ester smiled. "You are well taught. That is good. I will continue your lessons." She sighed lightly, but it was a happy sigh. "You remind me of myself as a girl."

Abigail knew she should be flattered, seeing the beauty that now graced the woman, but she could not even manage a stiff smile, much less any gratitude.

Amazingly, the woman’s expression softened even more. She looked up at her husband. "Should you speak with Jason?"

Cleopas smiled with the same joy as his wife, knowing that was her demure way of dismissing him, and nodded, leaving.

Ester turned her full attention again on the girl. "I am sorry to hear about your mother," she said, recalling the circumstances in which her husband had heard of the sale of the child. "And I am sorry you are no longer free. But I am glad to have you here, Abigail." She dipped her head so that their eyes were level. "I truly am."

Abigail nodded and regained her voice. "As is God. He has seen fit to arrange my life in this manner." Her voice was sweet, quiet, containing none of her feelings.

It took only a moment of searching for Ester to see into the girl’s soul and realize how much pain was hidden beneath the surface peace. Impulsively, she gathered her into her arms and pressed the small head to her shoulder.

"I am going to take care of you, Abigail. I will."

The passion broke something within the child, and she drew in a shuttering breath. The tears came.

 

Cleopas paused briefly in the entrance to his son’s chamber. He could clearly see that Jason was sitting beside the window unaware of his presence, but he did not immediately wish to declare himself. It was a momentous change that was coming upon this family; he had to take just a second to gather his own strength before he could face the man-child that he would not see again for many years to come.

"I am sorry that I was not back sooner, Jason," the father at last said, announcing to the younger that he was no longer alone.

Jason glanced only briefly over his shoulder at his father, but that look was enough to let the elder see that he was no longer incensed. "I should not have gotten angry. It is yet the first hour, and I do not set out for Joppa until the third."

Cleopas nodded and sighed heavily, walking over to the window to join his son. The view from this particular portal was of the barracks; even before being appointed the position of prefect two years ago he was an influential soldier, and though given permission to buy a house, it needed by necessity be flush against the compound that provided his livelihood.

Their livelihood, now.

"I train soldiers every day, Jason. I could have trained you myself, here."

Jason did not want to argue this again. "We agreed that Rome would be best for me. It is more than training. I can learn our culture while I am there, attend the academies, finally escape this oppressive Judaism."

His father’s countenance got slightly fearsome. "I have warned you not to speak ill of your mother’s faith. You are part Hebrew too, I must remind you."

Jason’s eyes narrowed in anger once more. "And I have been submersed in it for all of my life. But we both know that the Jews do not accept me or Mother anymore, not being partly Roman. The only hope I have to be a part of something is in Rome."

Cleopas nodded. "I wish your mother had such a choice."

"Well, she chose to marry you. I had no choice to be born to you." He realized at once how horrible that sounded. "Not that I would ever have chosen not to be your son, Father," he added quickly, his anger turning into a grin to soften his father’s heart. "I did not mean to indicate that."

Cleopas laughed lightly to break the tension that had so quickly possessed the room. "I know you are a good son," he assured him. "That is why I will miss you."

Jason let his head fall forward so that his eyes were hidden. "I will miss you as well. But I will learn much at Rome. And perhaps someday I will be able to raise our name higher than we have yet dreamed."

Cleopas stood from the chair he had taken. "I will be content if I but see your safe return into your mother’s arms. But in the meanwhile, I will leave you with your thoughts. You will be joining us for the midday meal?"

Jason nodded, but his eyes were not watching his father’s exit from the room.

 

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 was with great warmth that he welcomed her into the kitchen.

"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 said. "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 decided to give voice to her question. "Are there only the four of us?"

"There is also Mark, but he will be leaving this eve with his lord, Jason." Simon led them through the kitchen, to a brief hallway accessible through it. "You 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, looking as though he had been ready to make exit anyway. He was girded to serve and looked almost surprised to see his fellow servant back here so near mealtime. "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 the girl a friendly smile. "This is a good house to belong to," he offered. "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.

If Abigail was surprised that her new Roman master apparently obeyed Jewish tradition with his servants, 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 said, indicating 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 the girl 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 she was saying. "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 once they had gone through.

The tray was heavy for such a small girl; 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 at the girl whose eyes were level with hers in her current position.

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. After all, the man said it with what seemed like a desire to help, not exert authority. But even if it was the latter, he had every right to do so. She had been here for perhaps an hour, he for nearly a decade. So she uttered only 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 inquired, taking 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 interrupted, her displeasure crackling through the air like a living spark. "I will not tolerate such heresy in this household. Caesar is no more divine than–"

Jason turned frustrated eyes to his father. "Father, will you please 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 her empty-handed maidservant. "Abigail, go to my chamber. Under the couch you will find a wrapped parcel. Bring it to me, please."

Abigail wasted no time. She had no trouble finding 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, though, 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.

Abigail surely did not realize that her face reflected every emotion within her small being, but when she handed the parcel to her mistress, that woman saw it all and resolved to talk to her later. For now, though, her attention must go to her son.

Jason’s attention was piqued, but to his credit, he waited patiently for whatever gift that 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 are obviously not going to give everything to you now on the off chance that you do this away from home; I am sure you would agree that it would not be wise to send you burdened with too much. So we selected these few things."

Ester handed their son a smallish wooden box, ornate in engravings that pictured the ark of the covenant. Jason barely glanced at the lid, though. He flipped it open immediately and drew out a heavy chain of gold with a pendant of surprising wealth hanging from the end. It was a large ruby, which greatly 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 that he had heard his mother quoting too often. Instead, he pulled out the other object.

"It was my father’s," she offered by way of explanation when he slipped the ring onto his finger and found it to be a perfect fit.

Jason met his mother’s eyes. "I did not realize that your family had such wealth."

Ester met 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 briefly, not knowing how to respond. He did not know why his mother was telling him about her family the day he was preparing to leave, but he knew now was not the time to express disinterest. Fortunately, though, time and his father saved him from any need to respond.

"Have you sent your belongings to Steven yet?" Cleopas asked. "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 the small one that wanted only to give comfort. "‘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.’" She let her eyes go to those of her servant, 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 eyes grew soft. It was more than she could imagine right now, growing up beside this woman. Her life had simply changed too quickly. Only two days ago her mother had been alive, eager to tell her husband the glorious 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 even 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 said, tilting the child’s 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. I did not want a girl simply to do my bidding for me; I wanted a girl to teach, as I would a daughter. 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.

The girl made her way back to her room. She did not immediately close the door, as there were no windows to light the interior once she did. There was a lamp sitting 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. Taking another second to notice the crudely fashioned chest, small but sturdy, in the corner, the only other object in the room, 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.

 

II.

 

 

Cleopas handed his sword to Andrew as he reached for his water skin and took a long swallow. His men were all leaving the practice area for their meals, so he was free to let his eyes wander to his home, where Andrew’s gaze was also focused. They could see two figures on the portico facing them, one much smaller than the other, made to look even more dwarfed by the larger since one was seated and the other standing above.

"Ester says their lessons have been going well," Cleopas stated with a smile.

Andrew smiled as well. "Abigail says it is useless to educate a slave girl as though she were the daughter of the high priest."

This brought a laugh to the master’s mouth. "Being that her mistress is the daughter of the high priest and wishes only to share her knowledge, the child will have to grow accustomed to such things." His face sobered. "My wife has longed many years for a daughter. And while most advise against treating a slave like family, I do not have the heart to refuse Ester’s indulgence when I see that gleam of fulfillment in her eyes. Besides," he said, looking again to his own servant, "when one has such servants as we do, it is impossible not to recognize their worth."

Andrew smiled at the compliment, knowing indeed that he had been blessed to be brought into a home that appreciated its helpers. "It is truly a pleasure to serve you, my lord."

Cleopas let his gaze go back to his abode. "I think I, too, will take a part in Abigail’s education. If she is learning Greek and Hebrew more deeply, she should also learn Latin. It is, after all, the language of her master."

Andrew nodded but said nothing; his command of the Roman language was very slight indeed.

"And while we are at it, you should sit in on those lessons as well, Andrew. It could greatly benefit you."

Andrew swallowed his surprise and replaced it with gratitude. "I would be honored by such attention."

Cleopas nodded in finality. "Our lessons will begin tonight." He smiled again as he moved away. "I trust you can adequately calm our young friend’s protests when she hears the news."

Andrew had to shake his head as he followed behind his master. Abigail had been in their house for a year now, and he had never seen a child so anxious to keep her place. She did not want to rise above her place as a servant, as a woman. The objections she had raised to being elevated beyond her station had been to Dinah, not him. When he had issued his gentle rebuke, she had clamped her mouth shut immediately, just as a proper maidservant should.

It was infuriating sometimes, at least having grown up in a household that welcomed independent thought in its servants. Certainly, Cleopas would never tolerate disloyalty or disobedience, but as a wise man, he knew that letting those under him gain understanding would only ensure that they recognize exactly how wise the master is, and long to remain by his side to learn for the extent of their lives.

As they entered the main camp, the clouds that had been gathering all morning finally broke, streaming down water that was greedily sucked in by the parched ground.

Cleopas nodded to the general in satisfaction. "This afternoon will be a fine time for the intensive training we were discussing. A mud bath might just knock some of the arrogance out of these boys."

The general laughed. "We will soon inspire Caesar to expansion once more, when he sees the fine shape of his soldiers."

"Not likely," said one of the centurions, "unless the will of the divine Augustus has changed overnight, Tiberius would never disobey it."

The general wisely remained mute in response. "Cleopas," he said on a different topic, "my wife wishes for you and Ester to take dinner with us tomorrow. I told her I would do all in my power to convince you."

Cleopas nodded once in affirmation, a smile gracing his lips, mainly in contentment that his wife was at last becoming accepted among his peers. And if she were to be befriended by the general’s newly arrived wife, she would be accepted indeed. "We would be honored, sir."

"Good. And have Ester bring her girl. My Julia is most anxious to see what kind of maidservants can be had among the Jews."

Cleopas nodded again. Andrew, practically invisible in the shadow of his master, of course made no reply. And if part of him resented the idea of Romans looking at one of his people as though she were a beast, he would never articulate such a thought even to himself; he could not assume all Romans to be as sensitive as his master, but he could also not assume the opposite. Best to reserve all opinions until they could be substantiated.

 

Abigail’s large brown eyes just stared at her master without blinking.

Cleopas made himself refrain from grinning. "I know you are capable, Abigail," he said firmly. "What are your objections?"

Her eyes sank to the ground, as they usually did when she spoke. "I simply do not wish to disappoint you, Master. But your servant is of small mind."

Cleopas did laugh outright this time, 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?"

"Yes, Master."

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?"

"Yes, Master."

"And have you learned the written forms?"

"Not well, Master. I know enough to carry out your business."

"And how long since I began tutoring you?"

"Five years, Lord."

"Well then," Cleopas declared, turning back to his youngest pupil. "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 his lord, knowing that he would either insult his master or himself. He knew Cleopas did not really intend for either, so he opted for a middle ground. "I believe that Mistress is a splendid tutor and Abigail a quick learner both, Lord; moreover, I hold that Abigail will learn just as quickly under your direction."

Abigail knew there was no point in arguing further, if argument was even a proper name for the small objection she had raised upon interrogation. So 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. The point was that she did not think she should. Ester had started their relationship as one more appropriate for a mother and daughter, but the small girl 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 the learnings 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," he replied. His eyes went to his other student, who was trying not to show his pain. Cleopas smiled. "Let us begin."

 

Abigail was beginning to think she should have tied Ester to the chair. "Mistress, if you do not sit still, I will never get these tangles out," she chided with a slight laugh.

Ester folded her hands obediently in her lap. "I am sorry, Abigail. I have just never actually been invited to join any of Cleopas’s friends before. All these years of marriage, and this is the first dinner party I have been asked to!" She shook her head before she could remember not to, then had to laugh, knowing she was probably receiving a good-natured scowl from her maid. "Sorry."

Abigail could not help but smile. She had never seen her mistress as excited as this; normally the woman had a calm bearing, one that inspired the girl. This new face, however, reminded her exactly how human Ester was; and it was a delight to see. "I am almost finished. There."

Ester ran a hand through the waist length locks. "Perfect. Thank you." She looked at her reflection in the polished metal mirror. "I simply do not know what to wear. If I choose the garments Cleopas has bought me after the Roman fashion, I fear that they will think I am trying to be something I am not. But if I wear the traditional Jewish garb, they may think me–"

"Mistress," Abigail felt it her duty to interrupt. "Wear the scarlet silk that you were given last month. With your rubies. You will look just like your namesake in all her glory."

"You do not think they will think me putting on airs?"

"I think they should be pleased to see you trying to show them that you are pleasing to be seen with."

Ester laughed. "Brilliantly said, child." She stood. "Very well. Bring them to me."

She pranced nervously as the girl went about collecting the clothing and jewels. Within fifteen minutes, the mistress was decked out in her finest, her black hair the perfect compliment to the deep scarlets. "You look so beautiful."

Ester paused in her preening to crouch down to the Abigail’s level. "Thank you, Abigail. Why do you not go change now, too? And I have an extra length of scarlet for your sash, as well."

Abigail smiled prettily. "I will try to complement you well."

"And you will undoubtedly succeed. You are a lovely girl, and you will blossom into a lovely woman." Ester smoothed Abigail’s hair back gently. "Run along, now. Come back in once you have changed, and I will brush your hair for you."

Abigail would have protested, but they had established long ago that it was a pleasure for Ester to do this small task, and the girl did not wish to deny her mistress any delight. So she exited and walked quickly to the door that opened to her room, lit the lamp before closing the portal, and went straight to the trunk that now held her finer clothes. It did not take her long to pull the wool tunic off over her head and the linen one on again in its place. This one was a pure white, brand new; she had undergone a growth spurt recently, and Ester had seized upon the opportunity to buy the child new, finer garments.

When she returned to Ester’s chamber, the woman had the length of silk ready and immediately wrapped it around the child’s waist, then proceeded to whisk her up and set her down again on the table, where her own long hair was in easy reach of the lady’s hands.

"What will I be doing this evening?" Abigail felt free to ask.

"I am not entirely certain. They will most likely have their own staff to do the serving. I assume that you will just help when asked to do so, and otherwise attend me as only you know how."

Although Abigail could not see her mistress’s face, she could hear the smile in her voice and took pride in knowing that she had learned the woman’s likes so well. "I will make you proud tonight," the child promised soberly. "If they care to look, they will find that your slave serves you out of love."

Ester’s smile turned soft. "And if they care to look even further, they will see that the mistress loves her servant."

 

The house of the general was also near the barracks of the Tenth Legion, but on the side opposite that of his prefect. Abigail walked directly behind Ester as they made the ten minute journey; Andrew, behind his master, was by her side. As expected, they were a far enough distance behind the couple to allow them privacy to talk without being overheard, and conversely allowing the servants to do the same.

"Be careful tonight, Abigail,"Andrew said quietly, piquing the girl’s attention. "I do not believe Master mentioned it to his wife, but the general’s wife asked for you to come specifically so that she could see what kind of maidservants could be acquired from among our people."

Abigail was a bit confused as to what that really meant to her. "What should I do about it? I will serve Mistress as I always do."

"Of course. I just wanted you to be aware, Abigail. You are unaccustomed to being looked at as a piece of furniture; I did not want you to be disconcerted if you find the lady’s gaze on you in such a manner." To prove he was looking only after her well-being, he shot her a smile. "When faced with some people, it is easy to forget that you are a person worthy of fair treatment."

Abigail kept her gaze ahead. "Perhaps some people are not."

"Nonsense," Andrew did not hesitate to respond. "Assuming you are speaking of yourself, I assure you that you are quite worthy."

The child’s silence allowed Andrew a moment to reflect. He knew that his young friend was only in her ninth year, but somehow her demeanor suggested a spirit that had been beaten down by years of hardships. He had to wonder what the first years of her life were like. She never spoke disparagingly of her parents; then again, she never said anything less than polite about anyone. He decided he might as well inquire.

"Do you ever miss your mother, Abigail?"

The child bit her lip to hold back her tears. "Yes. And my father. He died a year before my mother did."

Well, that in itself may be enough to cause such soberness in one so young. "And your mother remarried?"

He only saw the glint of anger in her eyes because he was watching for it. "My father’s friend, our neighbor, married my mother two months after Father died, the day her mourning was over."

"So soon?" Andrew realized he should not have said it, but it escaped his lips before he could stop it.

"My father was not a wealthy man; we were left with nothing. Silas already owned our land; he had bought it years ago to save my father from debt, then allowed us to live there." She looked up to Andrew and found him watching her intently. "I think he forced my mother into marriage because of that; or at least used our debts as an excuse for it. He already had a wife, and she did not take well to my mother and me."

"Which is why she sold you the day after your mother died."

She nodded and turned her gaze back to the little puffs of dirt that their shoes were kicking up as they walked. "I was blessed that it was our master who came."

"Indeed."

Ester chose that moment to glance back with a smile. She did not know what they were talking about behind them, but she was glad to see Abigail talking at all with someone other than herself.

"I believe Andrew and Abigail are becoming friends," she commented to her husband.

"I am far from surprised. They are both wonderful people."

"Yes, but I was beginning to think that Abigail would never come out of her shell. She only recently has opened up at all to me, and it is a relief to see that she is talking with Andrew as well."

Cleopas nodded and patted his wife’s hand. "Here we are," he then said as they walked up to the grand dwelling of his superior.

The door opened before them, and the Visibullises entered, their servants steps behind them. They were ushered into another room by a looming manservant, who left his comrade behind to show the visiting slaves where to go in preparation for the meal.

"The bulk of the serving will be done by our staff," the woman was saying. "But since you know your masters best, much will simply be handed to you. You will not have to do the fetching, however, the platters will be delivered into your hands." She stopped to look at Abigail’s small frame. "Or should we have someone for the lady?"

It was Andrew who answered. "Abigail is a strong girl; she handles everything herself."

The woman apparently took his word for it. "They will probably remain in the receiving room for about half of an hour. During that time, Cook will give you the rundown on how the meal is going to go. You will be shown into the dining room directly before your masters are to arrive."

Abigail was taking her lead from Andrew, and since he made no response, neither did she. They merely followed the maid to the kitchen, received their directions, and twenty minutes later took their places.

 

The meal had been a long one, far more extravagant than the Visibullis household was accustomed to. Cleopas, in the course of the evening, began to realize that over the past twenty years in Jerusalem, not to mention the prior ten in Gaul, he had forsaken most of the habits taught him in Rome; and he did not deem it a loss. He found he preferred the meals of the Jews, perhaps because his house had been run in the Hebrew tradition for so long. But nevertheless, he enjoyed himself and was therefore not distressed to know that the evening was far from ended when the dinner was.

Ester was faring only moderately worse. It did not help that she had never met the general’s wife before this night; dining with a strange woman whose station was above one’s own was always slightly daunting, she imagined. But she, too, was having a pleasant time. She found Julia a trifle superficial, but good company.

It was when Claudius, the general, said, "I suppose we will be losing another of our prisoners to tradition shortly, due to Passover" that Julia decided it was time that the ladies adjourn and leave the men to their wine and politics.

Since Abigail had been instructed to follow when this happened, she was only a few steps behind her mistress when they entered the anteroom. Julia’s maidservant had also followed but was now waved away abruptly, without so much as a glance given her. Abigail watched the girl, probably twice her age, at least, leave again immediately, her shoulders drooped slightly, as if tired.

"That girl is such a nuisance," Julia said immediately, settling onto a couch whose purple hues blended well with the violet garments she was wearing. "I have been wanting to ask you about the help to be found here. I brought Salina with me from Rome, of course, but the wench has been so depressed ever since that she is hardly useful. I am beginning to wonder if perhaps she had a man there and did not tell me."

Ester had no desire to discuss the personal life of a servant she did not know. "I suppose everyone has his own difficulties."

"I suppose," Julia agreed. She let her gaze wander to Abigail, who was standing as a statue beside Ester’s couch. "How long have you had your girl?"

"Abigail has been with me for a year," Ester replied.

"Really? She seems well trained. From whom did you purchase her?"

Ester looked at Abigail, whose expression revealed nothing. "The poor child was orphaned, and her guardians could not keep her. Cleopas was fortunate enough to hear about it and bring her to our home."

"She is a pretty child. I have always thought that important. Who wants a servant that it is a chore to look at?" Julia took a sip from the glass that had been put on the table for her before her entrance. "Then again, some of them seem to get ideas into their heads because of their appearance, begin to think that they are as good as a lady."

"Hm" was the only answer Ester could think to give.

Julia was looking again at Abigail, observing her fine clothing. "Out of curiosity, do you just like to dress her up for your own pleasure, or is the child already exhibiting signs of arrogance?"

Ester’s eyes snapped dark fire. "It is Hebrew tradition to treat fellow Israelites with compassion, especially orphaned children, even if they are slaves. Moses says that they are in their position only because of an unfortunate turn, not because they are any less people than the rest of us."

Julia was not a monster; she recognized when she had overstepped politeness. "I apologize," she said sincerely. "The custom in Rome is quite different; I will have to learn to understand the way of the Jews if I am to successfully live among them, I know. Would that you be patient with me."

Ester’s features relaxed, and she even smiled. "One cannot be expected to make such vast adjustments quickly. I hope I have not offended you with my defensiveness."

Julia returned the smile. "Not at all. I admire a person who knows what she believes. I hope that we will become friends; I have a feeling you would be a wonderful soul to be with. I could learn much from you about this culture, and perhaps share about my own. You have never been to Rome, have you?"

"No," Ester conceded. "Cleopas and I have not had much opportunity to travel."

"I am not surprised. He is an important part of the legion; Claudius can never praise him enough. At any rate, I believe we could mutually benefit each other. What do you think?"

Abigail’s mistress had to smile once more. "It is an opportunity I would greatly enjoy."

Their conversation turned to other things, but Abigail paid no heed. She was proud of her mistress, there was no question of that. She was proud that Ester deemed her worthy of defending, and of loving to begin with. Although her concerns were not erased, the woman’s reasoning did ease them a bit. She had either never learned or forgotten the extent of the law concerning slavery; not surprising, since it had not seemed an especial concern before she found herself a part of it.

Perhaps it truly was a good thing that she was being educated, after all. Every Israelite was to know the Law, and she had much of it left to learn. And if in the process she could learn things that would allow her to help with her master’s business, then it would be worth it indeed. This decided, Abigail too deemed the night a success.

 

 

III.

 

 

Abigail put the fruit to her nose and inhaled. Satisfied, she handed the merchant a coin. "Thank you, Michael."

"See you next week, Abigail," the man answered with a smile for the girl. She had been stopping at his shop every week for three years now; he had been surprised at first at how picky she was, but he had long since grown used to her and even looked forward to seeing the slave. "Say hello to Dinah for me."

"I will."

She had no more shopping to do, but one stop still left to make; Ester had asked that she stop at the training field on her way home and take Cleopas something he had forgotten that morning. She had not been told what it was, probably because Ester herself did not know.

She was not an uncommon sight to the soldiers; she had been running errands back and forth for the past six years. So she did not feel strange when she walked into the Praetorium.

"Good morning, Abigail."

She turned with a smile. "Good morning, Vetimus. Do you know if Andrew is available?" As a rule, she passed along all messages to her fellow-servant rather than disturbing her master.

The centurion nodded. "He is in the entryway of the field. I do not suppose you have brought some of Dinah’s special cakes?"

The girl shook her head, laughing again. "I fear not. But mistress requested that you and your family join us for the evening meal soon."

"Name the time, and we will be there."

As she had expected to see the centurion today, she had already gotten such information. "Would tomorrow be possible?"

"Splendid. We will see you then." Vetimus continued in the way he was going, as did Abigail.

She found Andrew standing in a semblance of attention, waiting to be needed. She touched his sleeve to draw his attention and passed the package into his hands. "Mistress sent this over."

Andrew took it. "Thank you. Can you wait here a few minutes? I believe Master had a letter from Jason to send over."

Her brows shot up. Cleopas would normally keep correspondence until he got home so he could read them to her himself–Ester had refused to learn to read Latin, but that was nevertheless the language her son wrote home in. "Is it urgent news?"

Andrew shrugged. "He did not say. But as you will have to read it to Mistress, you will soon find out."

"That reminds me; Vetimus and his house are joining us tomorrow for the evening meal, so Dinah will need my help tonight. We will have to cancel our lessons."

"What a pity," the man responded with a grin. It had been his idea to work on his Latin more, even on nights when the master could not give the teaching, but he never seemed to mind when they had to be put off for one reason or another.

Cleopas joined them at that moment. "Abigail, I am glad to see you." He pulled a folded paper from his belt. "Take this home with you and read it to Ester."

The girl nodded and accepted the letter. Assuming it must be important, she then bade her farewells and headed back to the house.

Andrew handed the package to his master, then they both glanced back to the retreating girl. "Your men are beginning to notice that Abigail is growing up."

Cleopas nodded. "I think it is time to tell Ester to send Simon on her errands to the camp and keep Abigail safely closeted away."

The two men shared a smile, knowing the maidservant would resent such a decision. But she would never give a hint of it. She never questioned the commands she was given; if she were a man, she would have made an excellent soldier.

 

Ester sat down, wondering what the news from her son would be. It must not be anything bad, or Cleopas would not have delegated the task of sharing, but it must also be important enough that he did not want her to have to wait until his return home that eve for her to know.

"Shall I read it in Hebrew?" Abigail asked.

Ester nodded. "Please."

The girl cleared her throat and unfolded the letter. It was addressed only to Cleopas, so Abigail skipped the salutation altogether, knowing it might hurt her mistress, if only slightly, to know that her son had not cared to include her in whatever was of such import.

"‘I have not much time to write,’" she began, "‘as I must go soon to the house of a friend to dine. They are an influential family, and it may serve me well to be accepted by them. Titus’s father, Caius Asinius, was up until recently a consul, and a very successful one. Of course, some say it is because of Tiberius’s excellent mood due to the death of Germanicus that he was met with such ease in his duties, but I will retain judgement on the matter, as I have never had cause to meet the Emperor himself. At any rate, the house of Asinius is one destined to greatness, and I am pleased to be seen as one of their friends. Actually, though, I find Titus a bit intolerable sometimes, as he seems to have the opinion that he is too good to serve as a soldier. He seems to think that his career in war will not be long-lasted, as his father apparently has other plans for him in a year or two. At any rate, it is Menelaus Casicus I most enjoy spending my time with, but as he is of a family far below our own, originally Greek, I believe, it is not so advantageous to spend my evenings with him.

"‘On to the real news, though. I just received my assignments today, and while I am sure you will get the official word soon if you have not already, I knew you would rather hear from me: I am to serve directly under you, Father, replacing Marcus Persibia, the news of whose death has just reached Rome. So I will be on a ship to Joppa within the month, bound home. Tell Mother I am looking forward to seeing her again. Menelaus and Titus have both been assigned in Jerusalem as well; Menelaus to the palace of Pontius Pilate, an enviable post, as he has shown excellent skill in defensive combat. I am not certain where Titus will be; he only said the Tenth Legion and no more.

"‘At any rate, that concludes the time I have allotted to this letter, and I must be going to the Asiniuses’ now. Give Mother a kiss for me, and know that I miss you both. Much respect, your son, Jason.’"

Abigail looked up from the parchment to see her mistress’s face. Ester was, at the moment, sitting surprisingly still. Her gaze was looking upon something Abigail could not see, something much farther away than Rome, back six years in fact, to the man-child who had left her home with high expectations. The servant tried to conjure up that image of her first day in this house, but the memory was shrouded in years of growth and change. All she could recall was an impression of a boy with disrespect for the woman she had come to love so much and an eagerness to escape the Laws that made Israel a nation blessed by God.

"Leave me for a while, child," Ester finally said softly, her gaze still in the past.

She had, of course, expected her son to return, had dreamt of the day in fact. But it had always been something distant. Now that the event was facing her, she was terrified. What if he was no longer who she remembered? What if, in fact, he had given himself to all that she had warned him against?

She knew such wonderings were useless but could not seem to tear herself from them. So she just sat there, absently, knowing Abigail would return before too much time could be wasted.

 

Dinah was aging more swiftly than she would have liked, but she did not let it slow her in her work. She took pride in knowing that her cooking was a pleasure to her masters and all the company brought into the house. She knew it pleased her husband too, both the food and the approval. She was lucky to have been given to a man as understanding as Simon; many others would have put her away long ago because of her inability to give him a child. Or, if not something as drastic as divorce, at the very least cease to show her the courtesy due a wife.

But not Simon. Simon knew that she served him as readily as she did those who owned him, knew that she loved him with a full heart, and he loved her just as much. He knew that any children they might have would belong to their masters, too, and while he had made a decision to stay in the house of his own will, he would not like to be put in the position of choosing such a life for another, especially one of his own flesh.

So Dinah was as happy as anyone she knew, satisfied with her position and generally not even lonely. If she missed that unfelt sensation of holding a babe and calling him her own, she did not let it bother her. She did, after all, have Abigail, the closest thing to a daughter anyone could dream of. And that child was probably far better behaved than most children, anyway. The loss of her family had hit the girl hard, and Dinah knew that the support she had given had helped Abigail through the worst of it, that first year when she found herself in such a new environment, unsure of what was expected of a slave girl treated as a daughter.

She did not notice that she was singing a psalm until she heard the current object of her thoughts join in, the soft voice clearly deepening with maturity ever so slightly, its little-girl timbre lost to all but memory. They finished the melody without breaking the pace of work, Abigail pitching in without any problem, as she was accustomed to doing.

These moments were the ones when Abigail could best pretend that her mother was still alive, that it was her kitchen she was working in, Sarah that stood over the table rather than Dinah. It helped that they looked and sounded similar. Not that Abigail could ever forget that her mother was truly gone, that it was a fellow slave she worked so well with, worked with because she, too, was a servant in a Roman house.

"Did you hear any news in the marketplace today?" Dinah asked after the song ended, as she always did on the days she was too busy to also go shopping.

"Very little," the girl replied. "You know they stop talking when we come. Not that they do not like us, but they know we serve Romans, and I believe it is they that cause most of the grumbling these days."

"Yes," Dinah replied, rinsing some vegetables. "There is much unrest. Andrew mentioned that another rebellion was discovered and quieted just last week."

"I am glad that the master seldom has cause to be involved with such things. I understand our people’s cry for freedom, but at the same time, it is a good house we serve. Master is not a tyrant, even if Caesar is."

Dinah laughed. "Speak like that in the markets, and you will be turned over to the high priest for treason."

Abigail shared her smile. "Did Andrew mention who was leading this last uprising?"

"No, I do not believe he knew. I suppose no one mentioned it today?"

"No. The only thing of any interest was the gossip about that teacher."

"You do not suppose he could be a rebel, do you? Simon heard that some are calling him the messiah." She picked up a knife and began cutting the greens.

"The news I heard about him has been more the complaining of the Sanhedran than anything else. Apparently the man healed a cripple on the Sabbath or some such thing. Nothing to indicate that he is planning to free Israel from Rome."

"Yes, well, Simon also said he is preaching spiritual rebirth and salvation, of all things. As if the Law is not enough for us."

Abigail retrieved a bowl from the shelf. "I have heard very little about him, to tell the truth. I suppose I will reserve judgement on the man."

"Mm. Oh, is Vetimus coming tomorrow?"

"Yes," Abigail replied. "I cannot wait to see little Claron again. The child gets more adorable every time I see him."

Dinah smiled in response. "The poor thing. I hate seeing someone so small with such an illness. To think he will never run with the other boys–"

"Do not bemoan his future yet," Abigail reprimanded in Dinah’s own tone. "Perhaps he will grow out of it."

"Or perhaps that teacher will heal him." Her tone was sarcastic, a reprimand for Abigail’s reprimand, yet not at all severe.

There were no words for a moment, just the methodic sounds of a busy kitchen. Dinah was the first to speak again, but her words actually caused Abigail to cease her work.

"I imagine Mistress and Master will be arranging your marriage soon."

"What?" The girl’s voice conveyed her myriad emotions in its sheer dryness.

Dinah did not interrupt her chopping. "You will be in your fourteenth year in but a month," the woman reasoned. "It is time for you to be a wife."

"But I am a sl–" She was not let to finish.

"Surely you have caught on in the past years. Mistress did not want to procure a girl to serve here forever. She wanted a companion, a daughter that she could raise." She finally stilled her hands and looked at her young friend. "She wants the best for you, Abigail."

Abigail hoped that if she did not respond then Dinah would let the subject drop–it was not something she cared to contemplate just yet. And she did escape the conversation, although not by any choice of Dinah’s. It was at that moment Abigail realized she needed to check on Ester, an undeniable reason that the cook would not dare question.

Abigail found her mistress exactly where she left her. She put a small hand on Ester’s shoulder. The woman sighed at the touch but did not alter her unseeing gaze.

"It will be alright, will it not, Abigail? When my son returns, I will see that life has shaped him into a good man, right?"

"Of course," Abigail replied dutifully. "Come now, Mistress, let us get you changed. You are meeting Mistress Julia for the midday meal, remember?"

Ester sprang up. "I had forgotten! What would I do without you, Abigail?" She headed for her closet. "You go change yourself first," she threw over her shoulder. "I will get everything ready in here."

Abigail knew Ester wanted a few moments to gather her wits again, so she obliged. She went to her little room and lit the lamp. She was more than happy to slip out of the course tunic she wore to the markets–it was her own rule, not Ester’s, that she be seen as a slave by the populace–and into the blue linen she wore at home. She knew that Ester would have a sash for her, as always.

The lady only glanced at Abigail upon her return before saying, "We will have to get you some more clothing soon. The things you have are getting too small again."

"I have not gotten taller," Abigail insisted.

"That was not the growth I was speaking of." She looked up in time to see Abigail’s cheeks flush and had to smile. "It is nothing to be embarrassed about, Abigail. You are turning into a beautiful young woman. But if we are not careful, we will both turn into late women. Hurry, let us go before Julia thinks we have forgotten her."

Abigail put the finishing touches on Ester’s clothing, fastened her jewelry, and stood for her sash to be tied. A minute later Simon was accompanying them to the general’s house, where his wife was ready to entertain her dearest friend.

 

The two ladies were on the portico sipping their wine and had dismissed the girls that served them so they could get their own meals. Over the past years Abigail had become good friends with Elizabeth, a Hebrew girl a bit her junior whom Julia had purchased soon after her own arrival. The girls took their food and headed to the opposite porch to eat in privacy.

"Did you see Julia’s necklace?" Elizabeth was asking. "It is absolutely divine. I do not even recognize some of the jewels."

Abigail nodded and took a bit of food, not bothering to reflect on the lack of respect her friend showed her mistress when out of her company. She had long ago come to the conclusion that while Julia would probably be angry and her own mistress would not mind being called by her given name, she would nevertheless refer to her even in thought with the title she deserved. As for Elizabeth–she could govern or not her own thoughts as she chose. Abigail could only do her own part.

But that line of conversation did not last long anyway. Elizabeth grew abnormally silent for a moment but did not take any food. Then she said, "The general gave me as wife to Cleon a few days ago."

Abigail was glad she did not have any food in her mouth. "Cleon? The kitchen–"

"The only Cleon in the house," Elizabeth interrupted a bit testily. "The old and loyal servant who deserved a nice young wife since his died on the passage from Rome."

Abigail was not sure what to say. "He is a kind man," she settled on at last.

Elizabeth nodded reluctantly. "He is very kind, very gentle, and very dull. But I had hoped that when it came time for me to go to a man, it would be to someone more exciting."

Abigail, her modesty suppressing most of her questions, merely asked, "Such as whom?"

"The general."

Again, Abigail was glad she had nothing to choke on. "What? Elizabeth, he is your mistress’s husband!"

"I keep forgetting how innocent you are. Surely you, the one who has been taught the Law, know that all female servants are legally the wives of their masters if he so chooses. Why are you so surprised that I would hope for that?"

The elder was fumbling for an argument. "Well, for one thing, the general is even older than Cleon–"

"But a general, not a kitchen slave."

"He would never give you his whole heart."

Elizabeth met her friend’s gaze, brown eyes meeting brown eyes as always, but with some new spark that Abigail did not like. When the younger spoke, it was more softly than usual. "Do not be naive, Abigail. Someone like us cannot hope for the heart of any man whose heart is his to give. A free man will never give it, and a slave’s belongs to his master. We are lucky if we can find favor in our master’s eyes. I have already been sold twice. I do not wish to repeat that again."

"I am sorry–"

"Do not be sorry!" the girl exclaimed. "I am sick of your pity! We both know that my mother was a harlot and yours an upstanding widow! Do not feel sorrow that my first master sold me because his son turned rebel and fled to the hills before I came of age! It will only make you feel better about yourself to pity me, and you do not need that. You have it good enough as it is!"

"Elizabeth–"

"Just wait, Abigail. Someday soon you will understand what I mean."

Abigail’s brows drew sharply together in anger, her voice almost hissed as she mocked, "Are you a prophetess now? Shall we call you Anna?"

Her friend ignored her. "Maybe the prefect will give you to Simon, since his wife is barren. Or maybe old Cleopas himself will–"

"Stop!" Abigail’s voice grew loud for the first time in the conversation, and she stood to emphasize her point. "Speak how you will of your own masters, but mine you will treat with the honor they are due."

"Well, are you not the good little slave," Elizabeth bit.

"Yes, I am. And I am going to attend my mistress now." She picked up her plate to deposit in the kitchen on her way through, knowing she would never look back on this day as anything but bad.

 

Dinah had exited the kitchen for a few moments, leaving Abigail alone. The girl’s mood was still simmering beneath her controlled expression, but as the soothing rhythm of work eased her mind out of its casing, she allowed herself to seethe in peace. Until, that is, Andrew entered the kitchen looking as though about to ask a favor.

"Will this day never end?" she muttered.

"What?" Andrew asked, certain he had misheard.

"Nothing. What do you want?" She look up at him with frustrated eyes that grew even more so when she saw he was, for some unknown reason, grinning. "What?" she demanded again.

He told himself he should not be amused by her rare display of temper but could not contain his grin. But in an effort not to focus on it, he said the first thing that came to mind, which was not his actual purpose in coming to the room. "Ready for our lessons?"

"I already told you I cannot do it tonight."

He almost laughed, she was so comical, with that set to her mouth and the stiff movements that added ages to her visage. "So you did. I forgot. My apologies."

"It is fine." She waited a few seconds, but he did not leave. "Well? What now?"

"The master wishes a fig."

She picked one up from the basket at hand and tossed it to him, assuming he caught it since she did not hear it hit the floor but not really caring to look. "Anything else?"

"No, this is all. Thank you."

"Good night."

Andrew left, still smiling. "Watch out in there," he said to Dinah when he passed her in the hall. "She is ready to bite."

"Abigail?" Dinah asked in disbelief. "What did you do?"

Andrew laughed. "I asked her a fig for the master. Luckily, I caught the missile as she threw it at my head."

Dinah’s eyebrows shot up. "Well. Just be glad he did not desire any water, or you may have had to wring it from your tunic into the glass."

"This is a common occurrence?"

"No. But I can imagine that Abigail in a temper would be as difficult as Abigail in a calm is controllable."

Andrew shook his head. "I will see you in the morning, Dinah."

"Indeed." The woman moved back into the kitchen, deciding it would be wise to remain silent and let Abigail work whatever was bothering her out of her system. After all, it was most likely just a temporary mood of a girl changing into a woman.