She appeared much too beautiful to be human. Her black hair fell full but straight, and no doubt long beneath her red cloak and hood. Her features looked sharp, but her tears suggested a softness in her heart. Behind those tears, she had the hint of eyes as blue and bright as the sky on a sunny day. Her dress looked like silk, a soft pink held fast by a clasp of gold that sparkled with flashes of red in the sun, a splash of jewels to match the ruby on her ring. Mostly, she looked young, perhaps twenty-one, but that made the picture altogether curious and somehow wrong. There was no way such a rich and beautiful young woman should be walking, much less walking alone on the Appian Way.
Festuscato, all of seven, covered in mud and presently sitting in an orange tree by the side of the road, pondered this vision as well as a seven-year-old can ponder such things. This girl should have had a dozen guards, and several servants and handmaids besides. And they should have been on horseback, if she was not in a carriage. After all, it was just thirteen years gone since Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome. And worse, father said Emperor Honorius recently died and he got angry because Castinus, the bad guy, was going to cause riots in the streets. Festuscato did not follow all of that, but he believed his father.
Festuscato held his breath. The young woman came over to the side of the road and sat quietly on the grass, in the shade, right beneath his tree. Festuscato thought it was too perfect. He quietly plucked a ripe orange, stretched his arm out and aimed as well as he could. Then he thought he ought to give fair warning.
“Bombs away,” he yelled and let the orange drop. He missed by a good foot to the girl’s left, but the girl reached out with super speed and snatched the orange before it touched the ground.
“Hey!” Festuscato wanted to protest, but he hardly knew what to say. He scrambled down the tree and she stood to face him. “How did you do that?” he asked.
“Magic,” the girl said with a grin, which suggested she might be having fun with him. She had the orange peeled in no time and offered one piece to him. Festuscato shook his head.
“I am sick of oranges,” he said honestly enough, as a thought occurred to him and came bounding out of his mouth. “Are you running away from home?”
The girl smiled. “I am a long way from home. My name is Mirowen. Do you have a name or should I just call you grubby?”
“I’m Festus. I’m an orphan and I’ve run away from home, too. Like Greta, I’m going to have an adventure and save the world.” Festuscato returned the girl’s smile, but on his face, it did not appear nearly as convincing.
Mirowen paused in her orange eating to look serious for a moment. “How can you run away from home if you are an orphan who has no home? I think you are going to have to work on your lying, not that I am recommending it.”
“Hey, Festus.” A boy down the street called and waved. There were three boys, all about the same age as Festuscato, and all just about as dirty.
“Hey!” Festuscato waved back. “Come and meet my friends.” He reached for Mirowen’s hand and she did not hesitate to give it to him, even if it meant being dragged down the street. “Hey guys. I want you to meet my girlfriend, Mirowen.”
Three boys stopped still and looked stunned.
“This is Felix, Gaius and Dibs. Say hello, fellas.”
“Awe,” Felix mouthed and threw his hands out. “How can you have a girlfriend? You’re only seven. I thought maybe it was your new nurse.”
“Nurse? I don’t need a nurse.” Festuscato protested.
“I ate her,” Festuscato said, with a straight face.
“Awe,” Felix repeated the word and the gesture. “Don’t listen to him. He just likes to give Dibs nightmares.”
“I see,” Mirowen said with a glance at Festuscato. She let go of the boy’s hand and smiled her warmest smile. “Maybe you can help me. I am looking for the home of Senator Lucius Agitus. Do you know where that might be?”
“Why that’s – ow!” Festuscato stomped on Felix’s foot.
“I know where it is. I can take you there,” Festuscato spoke quickly. “But I have to warn you, the lady of the house is a witch in disguise, and the Senator likes to yell all the time, and loud.”
“I’ll be extra careful,” Mirowen said, and this time she took his hand. “You boys coming?” The three fell in behind, though they did not appear happy about it.
The house, truly a Roman mansion, was not far. It sat up on top of a small rise and overlooked the Appian way for a good distance in both directions, though it was far enough in the countryside to be out of sight from the city. Some of the tenant houses could be seen in the distance, out by the fields, and the house had one great meadow nearby where horses grazed lazily in the sun. Everything about the place said money, lots of money.
“Wait.” Festuscato stopped them outside the main gate. “Let me check your ears.”
“My ears?” Mirowen sounded curious, but bent down a little toward the boy. He pushed her luxurious hair back just far enough to touch the tips of her ears before he spoke.
“Just want to be sure your glamour is good. Can’t have an undisguised elf about the place.” Mirowen said nothing. Her eyes got big and then very narrow as she stared at Festuscato. “Oh, I know an elf when I see one,” he said. “You are much too beautiful for a human.” Mirowen heard the compliment, but it felt confusing. She turned to look at the boys following, but they merely shrugged, like this was not even close to the first time Festuscato said something strange.
Mister March came to the door and took one look at Festuscato, mud and all, before he remarked. “You are a brave fellow.”
Mirowen looked up and spoke in some strange language. Mister March answered, and they began a spirited conversation. Festuscato stayed quiet, but he tried to follow what he could by the words he knew and the hand gestures. It did him no good, but they were shortly interrupted in any case by a woman’s voice.
“March, what is it?” At the sound of that voice, Festuscato inched over to hide behind Mirowen.
“A young lady come all the way from Britain to speak to Lord Lucius,” March said. As the woman came to the door, she took one look at Festuscato and shouted.
“Festuscato Cassius Agitus!” That was enough to scold the boy. “Take your sandals off and try not to touch anything.”
“I found him hiding up an orange tree and thought you might like to have him back,” Mirowen smiled.
The woman gave Mirowen the once over and apparently approved of her dress and deportment, sure signs of wealth and good breeding. Then she spoke over Mirowen’s head, it being two steps up to the door. “You boys better go home. I am sure your mothers will not be pleased.”
“Yes, mum. Thank you. Mum.” The boys spouted and ran off as quick as they could toward the tenant houses.
“You are from Britain?” The woman asked.
“Mirowen,” Mirowen gave her name and a slight curtsey which seemed the most graceful thing Festuscato had ever seen. “My father, King Macreedy sent me with a troop for my protection, but we were set upon by Goths just outside of Rome. I alone escaped. What you see is all that is left of my small fortune, that and a word for Senator Agitus, though my letters are stolen and I cannot say what my father may have written.”
Festuscato closed his mouth. The lie was masterful, and the woman, Festuscato’s mother, responded perfectly. “Oh my poor dear, do come in.”
“I found her all alone, crying.” Festuscato said the truth, but Mirowen’s look urged him to be quiet and his mother snapped at him.
“You need to strip and get in the bath this instant,” she said, before she added in a very soft voice. “Come and tell my husband all about it. He spent many years in Britain in service to Rome. I am sure we can arrange to help you out.”
Festuscato barely got clean and out to dry himself when Mirowen came in and announced she was his new governess. “I told them my father sent me away for my safety and it might mean my life to return home. On the other hand, I have a younger brother I have watched, my own mother being gone, and I would not mind watching you.” She came to dry his hair and whispered. “I am a house elf, you know.”
Festuscato nodded, but he would have to think about it. He would never be able to sneak off again. She would hear his every move. Then again, there might be some advantages to having a house elf as a governess, not the least in the way she might be able to teach him to lie expertly.