So, where were we? Julia is going to poison Caius, but first she’s sending Hadassah back to the Valerian villa. She tells Hadassah not to tell Decimus, Phoebe, or Marcus what has happened.
Julia is especially worried that Marcus would create trouble if he knew what Caius had done. To be specific, she’s worried that he would kill Caius. You know that “macho” thing where men say they’d kill any man who harms their woman (be that wife, girlfriend, or daughter)? That thing is actively contributing to Julia’s situation. It’s making things worse for her.
Before she can leave, Hadassah must heal, so she remains in the storage rooms below Caius’ villa for close to a week, tended by two of the household slaves, Elisheba and Lavinia. From them, Hadassah learns what is happening in the villa. As per the plan, Julia is staying temporarily with Calabah, so when Marcus came to see Julia the next day the servants was told she was visiting friends. When he asked for Hadassah, they told him she was on an errand.
The mention of Marcus made [Hadassah’s] stomach tighten strangely. “Did he look well?”
“Indeed, yes,” Lavinia said with a dreamy smile. “If I were fortunate enough to be slave to a man like that, I’d serve him in whatever way he asked.”
Rivers wants to make sure we remember Marcus’ electric sexual prowess.
Quick note, though. As one reader pointed out last week, these slaves belong to Caius, not Julia. As such, they are Caius’ slaves, and bound to obey Caius. Is it realistic that they would go along with Julia, hiding Hadassah like this? If Caius found out what they were doing, he could have them punished severely. They are, after all, actively conspiring to deceive him, and they are his slaves.
All according to plan, Calabah and Julia visited the villa several days later (Julia is staying temporarily with Calabah, remember). They drank wine privately with Caius. Calabah told Caius that Julia would return the next afternoon. The next morning, Caius was ill. Hadassah took Julia’s impending return as a sign that it was time for her to leave.
“You should stay a few more days,” Lavinia said.
“Lady Julia wanted me to leave as soon as possible,” Hadassah said. If Julia was returning tomorrow, then her presence might well put her mistress in jeopardy again if Urbanus found out she still was there. She slowly wound the Hebrew sash around her waist, securing it as gently as possible.
And there it is, the “Hebrew sash” Hadassah wears everywhere to make sure everyone knows she is Jewish, even Germanic gladiators who had probably never met a Jew. But Hadassah isn’t really ready to return. When she finally arrives back at the Valerian villa, after a long walk, she is weak and exhausted.
Phoebe, of course, is delighted.
She rose, and Hadassah saw she meant to embrace her. Before she could do such an inappropriate thing before Enoch, Hadassah knelt quickly and bent forward, touching Pheobe’s feet in an act of humble obedience.
“Rise, child.” She cupped Hadassah’s chin as she did so, looking upon her with open affection. “May the gods be praised.”
Seriously, what is this dark magic.
Phoebe relieves Hadassah of her duties for the evening, as they already had something planned, and all was well until Marcus showed up. Marcus had heard what happened at Anicetus’ party, and he decides to get the full of it out of Hadassah by force if he had to. The scene starts like something out of a romance novel—he comes out into the garden to clear his thoughts, and sees Hadassah there unexpectedly. His heart begins to race. She rises and turns toward him. And then things go south.
“I want to know the truth and I want to know it now!”
“I know nothing of what you’re saying, my lord.”
“You don’t know,” he said and grabbed her arm as she drew back from him, “or you won’t say.” He jerked her toward him and she gave a sharp gasp of pain, then fell. Surprised, he caught her in his arms before she hit the cobbled pathway. “Hadassah!” he said, dismayed. She was limp in his arms.
Marcus took her inside and laid her on a couch, and then noticed the blood seeping through her tunic. In trying to get out of the villa before Julia returns, Hadassah returned so early that her condition was almost certain to give her away. So much for telling Marcus nothing of what had happened.
Marcus ripped open the back of her tunic from neck to waist. When he saw her back, he began to shake. How had a girl so small and seemingly fragile taken such a beating? And what could she have done to deserve it? He stared at the lash marks that had bruised and cut her flesh. A dozen strokes at least, and with a heavy hand. Even in high temper, Julia was incapable of such violence. It had to have been Urbanus.
Hadassah roused. Disoriented, she sat up and her tunic slid off of her shoulders. Eyes going wide, she caught it against her breasts and glanced up at Marcus. Her pale cheeks bloomed with color.
“Did Caius do that to you?” Marcus had never felt such a surge of hatred against any man, nor such a burning desire for vengeance.
Of course her thought has to be for her modesty, because of course it does. Under Marcus’ questioning, Hadassah insists that the beating was her own fault, that she disobeyed Caius and that that’s why he beat her. She tells him Julia would have stopped the beating if she had been able to, and that Julia sent her away to keep her safe. Marcus is incredulous.
It was uncharacteristic of Julia to do such a kindness without some ulterior motive of her own.
It’s no wonder Julia doesn’t go to Marcus about this. Does everyone in her family think so badly of her? It can feel hard to find room to move when everyone is always assuming the worst of you. But Marcus is determined to get to the bottom of the matter, so he goes to Caius’ villa to call on Julia the next day. Julia is dressed in a new blue palus, and she is radiantly beautiful. But because nothing Julia does can ever please Marcus, we get this comment:
The wide leather-and-brass belt [she wore] reminded him of something Arria had worn. The thought made him uneasy.
The first thing Marcus does is throw what happened at Anicetus’ party in Julia’s face. Because of course it is. Julia denies nothing. To the contrary, she is proud of the size of the debt she got canceled—fifty thousand sesterces. Marcus is mortified and tells her off, but she isn’t having it.
“Who are you to question my behavior? You know nothing of my life. You know nothing of what’s happened!”
“Then tell me what brought you to this!”
She turned her back on him, rigid with anger. “It’s none of your business what I do with my life. I’m sick of people imposing their will on me.”
He jerked her around to face him. “I want to know what happened to Hadassah,” he said, unable to keep the hard edge from his tone.
What is with all the grabbing already?! Marcus! Stop it!
Her eyes narrowed warily. “So your concern is not for me at all, but for a slave.”
Julia’s last statement is a theme we’ll see cropping up again and again—as the book goes on, Julia increasingly feels that her parents and brother have switched their affections from her to Hadassah. She’s not entirely wrong, although there is a part of this that feels petty and peevish, at least in this instance—Marcus, after all, did ask after her before he asked about Hadassah, and what happened to Hadassah is relevant to what is going on in the household, and thus to Julia’s welfare. Still, with Marcus’ constant judging of Julia, and his obsession with Hadassah, Julia isn’t entirely out of line.
“What did she tell you happened?”
“Then who do you know she was beaten?”
“I saw her back.”
She smiled faintly, mocking him. “Did you use her like Bithia?”
Marcus let go of her. He glared at her, feeling a sudden uncomfortable dislike for what his sister had become. She met his look for a moment, stiff and rebellious, then her face dissolved into a tremulous smile, and he saw his beloved little sister again.
Ah, and there it is. Marcus likes his women unsure of themselves. It is only when Julia’s face dissolves into “a tremulous smile” that he sees the sister that he loves. When Julia is confident in herself and her self-worth and willing to engage in some mocking (if off-color) sexual humor, he can’t stand her. One can’t help but wonder if what ultimately turned Marcus off of Arria was her confidence and sense of her own self-worth.
Heck, this distinction is even at play in the difference between Bithia and Hadassah—Bithia came to Marcus, and desired him, and Marcus ultimately threw her over, disgusted with her. Hadassah, in contrast, is sweet, quiet, and unassuming—and unavailable, but we’ll get to that. But god forbid women be sexual actors, or show confidence.
“I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. Hadassah is nothing like Bithia,” she said, a hand to her temple. She looked up at him beseechingly. “I had to send her away, Marcus. If she remained here, Caius would kill her. And she means more to me than I can explain. I don’t know why … ”
Marcus thought he understood. Perhaps Hadassah affected everyone the way she affected him. Her serene presence somehow became essential.
And there’s the mojo again.
What makes Hadassah different? She goes above and beyond, and doesn’t just do what she is told to, as a slave, because she has to. But there is no reason a slave like that would be noticed. Valued, perhaps, but not like this. She’s quiet—that wouldn’t get her noticed either. She’s unassuming and doesn’t think of her own needs—but again, that wouldn’t get her noticed.
What’s odd here is this idea that if you serve and serve and give and give and ask nothing for yourself, people will fall all over you, when in practice what usually happens is that they will walk all over you. But that’s the message here, isn’t it? Have a servant heart and ask nothing for yourself and people will notice you and want what you have. Except that it has never worked that way for me. Instead, you end up burnt out and having taken on way too many project, including work other people should be doing—and no one asks what you have.
The other thing is that we’ve already established that Hadassah has the ability to make other people around her feel judged and inadequate, probably because she is judging them, a lot. That is not an attractive quality. People don’t like hanging out with people who make them feel judged, and they sure as heck don’t ask what they have so they can have it too.
This book is a Christian fantasy novel. It’s a gigantic piece of wish fulfillment. All the bad characters come to horrible ends and all of the good characters give off magical Christian vibes that make everyone fawn all over them.