The Dolphins of Laurentum
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First edition, 2003
|Cover artist||Peter Sutton |
Fred van Deelan
|Series||The Roman Mysteries|
|February 6, 2003|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||224 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||The Assassins of Rome|
|Followed by||The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina|
October, AD 79: Flavia Gemina and her friends Nubia, Jonathan, and Lupus, are enjoying dinner together at Flavia's home, when a bedraggled stranger stumbles through the front door. To Flavia's horror, the man is her own father, Marcus Flavius Geminus, who has been shipwrecked and severely injured. With the aid of Jonathan's father, Dr. Mordecai, Marcus makes a gradual recovery. But more bad news arrives: not only has her father's ship been lost with all hands and its cargo, Marcus's bank announces that it is calling in the loan on the ship immediately, or else they will seize his house and property. Flavia's uncle, Gaius, convinces the bank to give them one extra week, but no longer.
Everyone else is suddenly in need of money: Gaius doesn't feel able to marry Jonathan's sister, Miriam, after his farm was lost in the eruption of Vesuvius; Nubia is shocked to recognize her elder brother, Tarhaqo, among a group of slaves being sold in the market; Lupus is enraged to learn that his hated enemy, the slave dealer Venalicius, has bribed his way out of prison. Lupus wants to hire an assassin, but the man names an impossible price for his services.
The family's dismal mood is lifted by the arrival of a young stranger: Pliny the Younger, the nephew of Admiral Pliny, who has just inherited his uncle's property. Remembering their friendship with his uncle before his death, and keen to hear their accounts of his last days, Pliny invites Marcus to his villa in Laurentum to recuperate, including the children, Miriam, and the children's tutor Aristo. Mordecai endorses the suggestion gratefully, while Gaius remains behind in Ostia to sort out the financial mess.
When the family arrives at Laurentum, they are delighted to meet Phrixus, Admiral Pliny's slave, who has just received his freedom. Over dinner, the family play music and tell stories to entertain each other, and Marcus, with coaxing, tells of how he was shipwrecked. As he regrets the loss of his cargo, Pliny muses about the treasures lost under the sea, mentioning that there is a shipwreck visible under the water, just off the coast from the villa. It was rumored to be carrying a cargo of gold, but it is sunk too deep for any of the local fisherman to reach it.
Elated, Lupus reveals to the others that he is Greek in origin, born on the island of Symi, and, like his father before him, is a trained diver. With his instruction, the others equip a boat to take to the wreck site. During his first dive, he manages to reach the wreck, something no other local has managed to do, though he considers himself out of practice.
Pliny insists on having a celebratory feast on the beach. That night, the four friends are enchanted to see phosphorescent plankton lighting up the beach. When they all jump into the ocean, they soon find themselves swimming with dolphins. Aristo is cajoled to tell several Greek myths having to do with dolphins during their lessons, including the stories of Arion and Delphinus, and of Poseidon and Amphitrite.
With practice, Lupus makes several dives of increasing duration, managing to reach the wreck several times, but unable to retrieve any of the amphorae he finds inside. With Aristo's help, Jonathan designs a float rope to attach to the vessels, but everyone becomes alarmed when Lupus begins showing signs of pressure sickness. Aristo orders him to rest before his next dive, but Lupus becomes sullen and obsessed with retrieving the treasure, even snubbing his friends when they want to play music or go swimming with the dolphins again.
On his last dive, Lupus is attacked by an octopus inside the wreck, losing his lifeline. He fights off the octopus, but loses consciousness underwater. A friendly dolphin nudges him to the surface, and Jonathan is able to revive him with artificial respiration.
When they return to the villa, Aristo misconstrues an exchange between Miriam and Pliny, and the two men begin fighting over her. Furious, Miriam tells them to stop and runs off by herself.
Gaius arrives at the villa with grave news: the “assassin” that Lupus tried to hire was in fact an agent of the local magistrate, Bato, who deliberately named an impossible sum to prevent Lupus from trying to hire him. Gaius is now worried that Lupus is obsessed with finding enough money to have Venalicius killed, so much that he will injure or kill himself diving to the wreck.
When Flavia and the others wonder why Lupus hates Venalicius so much, Gaius has a startling document to show them: last month, Mordecai was in jail on a wrongful charge (during The Assassins of Rome). Venalicius was his cellmate, and narrated a confession that Mordecai wrote down:
Venalicius's real name is Phillippos, and he is Lupus's uncle. When he was a boy on Symi, he was abused and laughed at because of his ugliness, except by one girl, Melissa, whom he fell in love with. Because he was a good diver, Phillippos wanted to find a pearl to thank for Melissa being so nice to him, but ended up rupturing one of his eyes from pressure sickness. Now even uglier, he was even more abused by his father, who later sold him as a slave. Years later, Phillippos returned to the island, now free, and a rich and ruthless slave dealer. He was enraged to find that his handsome younger brother had married Melissa, and killed him. Melissa's son yelled that he would tell on his uncle, and Phillippos grabbed the boy and cut his tongue out, telling Melissa that the boy would die if anyone followed him. He then sailed away, and the boy escaped when the ship reached Ostia.
Lupus had overheard Gaius's reading, and adds one detail: Venalicius had told him that his mother was also dead; now knowing that this isn't true, Lupus realizes she may be alive somewhere.
Now more determined than ever to retrieve the treasure, Lupus sneaks out of the villa and hires one of the fishermen to take him to the wreck. When he gets there, he is shocked to see Dr. Mordecai and Venalicius together. Venalicius dives into the water, and Mordecai yells at Lupus to stop, revealing that Venalicius is trying to help them. Ignoring this, Lupus dives and races his uncle to the wreck. Once there, Lupus sees the octopus attacking his uncle.
Somewhat to his own surprise, Lupus stabs the octopus and drives it away. When Venalicius is brought up, he begins to suffer terrible pains, as he has made many more dives that day than is safe. Lupus realizes his uncle is dying; before he does, he begs his nephew to forgive him. Lupus does, realising that if he does not forgive his uncle, his bitterness and obsession with revenge would eventually twist him into a man as cruel and malevolent as Venalicius himself, and agrees to perform the last rites.
The treasure is never recovered, but the family's problems are still solved: Flavia secretly sells her most prized possession, a kylix she received from Publius Pollius Felix (in "The Pirates of Pompeii") to Pliny in exchange for enough money to anonymously pay off her father's loan; Pliny makes Gaius tenant on one of his farms, so he can afford to marry Miriam; and Mordecai informs Lupus that, before he died, Venalicius accepted Christian baptism and willed all of his money and possessions to his nephew, including his ship. Lupus makes Marcus the new captain of his ship (re-christened the Delphina), and agrees to carry out his uncle's dying wish of rescuing all the children he abducted and sold into slavery. The only one saddened is Nubia, who learns that her brother was sold to a gladiator school in Capua.
The next morning, Flavia, Jonathan, and Nubia read a note left by Lupus telling what little he remembers from that terrible night: after his uncle's ship left Symi, some of the other sailors had to stop the bleeding in his mouth by cauterizing the stub of his tongue: "I opened my mouth because I thought that it couldn’t hurt any worse than it already did. But I was wrong.”
They look up and are heartened to see Lupus out at sea, forever lifted of the burden of his hate, and taking a carefree ride on a dolphin.