A short, somewhat romantic, Felix mystery. The kind of thing that keeps him in business, and his wine and fish-sauce stocked. It calls on his unique set of skills, for those discerning customers with off-beat problems.
My clients usually have hopes. When one contacts a detective, they have certain expectations, an anticipation of resolution to their problems. The young woman sitting in front of me this morning, however, appeared devoid of emotion, resigned to her fate. Twenty-two, I thought, twenty-three at most. Pretty. Well dressed, with a cultured accent.
“I was married three times already,” she began. “The first was when I turned eighteen, as custom dictates. We were engaged since I was a child and he was just a young army cadet. A political alliance between our families. We were married in the old style, conferratio, as befitting our families. He was just elected as a quaestor and was assigned to the army of that year’s consul. He left on campaign right after our wedding, and never came back. Died en route from dysentery.
“I was again married a year later. Another political deal of my father. It was to the father of my first husband, as my pater was trying to maintain the same critical alliance. He died of a heart attack, the morning after our wedding.
“Two years after, my father arranged for another marriage. He gave me to one of the primus rhonus of the Collegium Mercatorum, who promised to finance my father’s consular elections campaign in return. My father got his money, but the rhone died of the ague within a week of the wedding.”
She paused in her story, and looked at me with an expressionless face. No tears, no pain at the memories, no emotion, beyond acceptance.
“So what brings you to me? Do you think your husbands were murdered, poisoned in some way?” I asked.
“Oh, I know I have been cursed by the gods. I am reconciled to my fate as a spinster. I think perhaps I was meant to be a vestal. No, it’s not about my past husbands. This time it is my mother who has arranged another marriage for me, this time to my cousin. He was
recently widowed, has no real political aspirations or clout, and seems only interested in his poetry and in caring for his young son and daughter. Our families just thought they’d solve both problems, put me in charge of the children and care for him.”
She paused again, and I simply waited.
“I know I’ve been cursed by the gods,” she resumed eventually, “but I like the little children. If we were to be married, I know that they would soon be deprived of father as well as mother. I need you to prove my curse to my parents. Cancel the wedding, or my cousin will die within days. Help me spare the children, Felix!”
After the woman — Marcia — left, I stayed in my study and pondered how to proceed. Of the existence of the gods and their curses I had no doubt, however proving such was a different task. One our best philosophers were still struggling with.
Retrace then. A possibility, one that always exists in marital affairs, is that Marcia herself was the cause of her husbands’ quick demises. Not happy with an arranged marriage — despite being probably prepared for it her whole life — she might have taken things in hand. She said she thought she was supposed to be a vestal. A donation and prayer to Magna Mater, a bit of poison in the marital salt cakes, and problem solved. Once the first murder went through, she would have gotten the appetite for more. That she came to me was no indication of honesty or innocence, just of self-assurance in her methods.
Another, simpler, possibility is that it was, indeed, a curse — just not of divine origins. All her marriages were of a political nature, in the aid of her father’s career. Nothing unusual in that. Perhaps her father had some enemies, who did not want him to ascend the cursus honorum. What better way than to frustrate his alliances and distract his mind, without affecting direct and obvious attacks?
Of the three possibilities, I favoured the last one as the most plausible. Time for research then. I spent the day amongst the scrolls in my study, and when I exhausted them I went out for more. I visited with friends and acquaintances, those in possession of knowledge of such matters. I asked, I read, I learnt, I summarised, and I distilled.
After two days, I sent a message to the young lady’s house that I will be calling that night. I gathered all that I needed — herbs, poultices, sacrifices, chants. In fact, I was proud that I had a solution to narrow down the real cause, and tactics to deal with each of the possible eventualities I envisaged. I had in mind a particular ceremony for augury, one that I had used with success in the past. It would tell us not only if the gods were indeed involved, but which numina in particular was responsible for the presumed curse, and what might be done to propitiate it.
Being a woman of high birth, there were many attendants as we stood in her rooms. I usually prefer to conduct such business with as few people as possible, so I asked that the slaves be dismissed and only Marcia and her parents remain. Both Quintus Marcius and his wife Caecilia were in their early forties – they must have married young.
“As you know, Marcia has asked me to prove to you that her marital misfortunes are a curse from the gods. Her belief is that she was meant to be a vestal, and that further marriages should be avoided. However it is also a distinct possibility that the curse is of earthly origins, which means a different path will need to be taken. I have therefore come prepared — both to detect such a curse and its origins, and also to break it and placate the gods if needed. The proceedings will not be a matter for the faint of heart, though I assure you it will be quite effective.”
I started the preparations. I cleared as much space in her sleeping cubicle as possible — not the usual place for visitors, but we were talking about the marital bed after all — and set a small tripod table in the centre. I opened my satchel and arranged the prepared knives, poultices and potions on the table. I put the three wicker baskets I brought on the floor within easy reach.
“If the gods are indeed involved, we will need a sacrifice. Depending on the specific numina involved in this curse, a different sacrifice might be required. A full suovetaurilia is unlikely to be needed, but I brought a trio of viper, chicken and piglet which will like cover what we’ll need.” The mother looked uncomfortable at the idea of a snake in the house; Marcia looked resigned.
Next, the ceremony itself. I asked for two goblets to be brought, one empty and one with unwatered sweet wine. I handed the wine to Marcia. “Drink,” I said, “it will make the next step easier.”
As she drank deeply, I chanted the opening supplication under my breath. “Now I will need a droplet of your blood, as the basis for detecting the curse afflicting you.”
I placed the empty goblet between us, picked up a sharpened razor and held my hand out. “If you just give me your left hand, I promise to make this as painless as possible.”
Marcia was a very pretty woman. Young; unspoilt despite her losses. She stared up at me with her luminous grey eyes, her face framed by chestnut curls. There was a glimmer in her eyes that wasn’t there the first time we met. Hope. Finally someone who believed her. I must have looked like a saviour to her, and my own heart was warmed by the look in her eyes as she gazed into mine.
She rested her delicate hand in my palm, and I felt the sparks fly between us.
I snatched my hand back and cursed under my breath, licking my singed palm. The others just stared at me in incomprehension.
“Show me your hand,” I said.
Marcia obediently held up her left hand. A slim and slender hand, white and soft-skinned, unused to hard work. She wore an ornate golden ring with a square garnet held in a spiderweb of gold thread.
“This ring,” I said, “where is it from?”
“It belonged to my mother,” said Caecilia. “I gave it to Marcia on her first wedding. My father gave it to my mother on their wedding day, and she wore it till she passed it on to me on our wedding day,” she glanced at her husband. “Their marriage was a happy one, as was ours, and I thought it would bring luck to Marcia’s marriage.”
“Well, it’s enchanted,” I said. “Enough to give off sparks to anyone prepared enough to sense it. Marcia, would you please take it off, and place it in the empty goblet?”
“But if this is the cause of the troubles,” asked Marcius, “How come it never affected my wife’s mother? Or our marriage for that matter?”
“That is what we shall find out next,” I replied.
What followed next was the standard practice when dealing with charmed items of unknown origins. Those of my readers who have attended the Collegium Incantatorum will understand, and those who haven’t would be bored by a description of the technicalities, so I shall just skip the details. Suffice to say that after interrogating of the mother, carrying out the tests, chants and performing the proper incantations — I had the answer.
“It seems,” I opened, addressing Caecilia, “that your grandfather and father wanted to be certain of the fidelity of your mother. They placed an enchantment on the ring, which would affect any lover your mother took beside him, and cause them to fall sick and die. I doubt your mother knew about it when she gave that ring to you.”
“But why would that affect Marcia, and yet never caused troubles in our marriage?” Asked Marcius.
“Because your father was still alive when you married, and you were married in the old style, am I right?” Caecilia nodded. “He has transferred the enchantment to you two, but never told you about it. He also had the enchantment tweaked, to bind you both. When Caecilia gave the ring to Marcia, it was still bound to you, Marcius. But because both mother and daughter have been married conferratio, without the proper transferral the enchantment was confused. The men married to the daughter were perceived as cheating on the mother. Thus it affected all men Marcia was with, and caused their deaths.
“Now, if you will only give me an hour or so, I could use the viper, chicken and piglet here and break the enchantment. It will revert to being a plain family heirloom. With the added bonus,” I added, “that you will have the comfort that your parents never strayed in their marriage.”
If you enjoyed this Felix short mystery, why not give Murder In Absentia a chance? For the price of a coffee, you’ll get many hours of enjoyment!