April, 80 AD
The ship Delphina sets forth on a voyage to the Greek islands to find a mysterious slave-dealer behind the kidnapping of Roman children. The former magistrate Bato and the poet Flaccus join Flavia, Lupus, Jonathan and Nubia to hunt him down and rescue the missing children. Lupus has an additional mission of his own: to find his mother.
It is April, and the beginning of the sailing season. The book opens on the marina pier at Ostia as the newly fitted Delphina (formerly the slave ship Vespa) prepares to sail. Passengers and crew are saying goodbye to their loved ones, making Lupus keenly feel the absence of his family. Though the purpose of the voyage is to rescue the freeborn children sold as slaves by Venalicius (the ship’s former owner), Lupus secretly intends to find his mother and not return to Ostia. Several bad omens make Captain Geminus consider postponing the trip, but Lupus, as the ship's owner, insists on sailing immediately.
At the last minute, Marcus Artorius Bato joins the ship as a passenger, anxious to follow a recently departed Greek ship connected with fresh cases of kidnapping in Ostia. Other passengers are the children’s tutor Aristo, the patrician poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus and his slave-boy, Zetes. Crew members include Atticus the cook, the good-looking Silvanus, and Zosimus, who keeps homing pigeons. During the voyage several things go awry, and they begin to suspect there is a traitor on board.
They drop Aristo off at Corinth to visit his family, and call at Symi to find Lupus's mother. He discovers she has gone to Rhodes to dedicate herself to the temple. On the way to the island, they discover that Zosimus is the traitor, who has been sending messages ahead via his pigeons. Bato and Flaccus tie Zosimus up and interrogate him about the gang’s activities, but Flaccus is aghast to learn that Zetes, his own slave boy, is one of the gang’s freeborn abductees.
In Rhodes they learn about the mysterious slave overlord Magnus who has everyone dancing to his tune. Captain Geminus, Bato, and Flaccus leave the ship to investigate the slave vessel Medea. Little do they know is that they are being lured into a trap: the Medea is brimisonming with Magnus's thugs, while other men of his sneak aboard the Delphina and take Flavia, Nubia and Jonathan as hostages.
Over the fallen Colossus, Lupus corners Magnus, who tells him that his friends have been captured and forces him to make a terrible choice: according to Magnus, Lupus' mother has pledged to sacrifice her life to Apollo in exchange for her son’s safety; if Lupus runs to the temple, he might be able to save her, but in the meantime, the Delphina will set sail with Flavia and the others, and all the kidnapped children aboard.
Lupus remembers that, despite the vow he made to find his mother, he made another vow to always stand by his friends. He runs to the local authorities and brings the local police to the Medea in time to save Geminus and the others from the trap. They then return to the Delphina in full force, rescuing Flavia and the others. As soon as they are safe, Lupus runs to the temple, but is told he is too late.
However, Magnus was lying, or at least bending the truth: Lupus’s mother, Melissa, is not dead; she has become a priestess of Apollo, as she swore to do if she received word that her son was still alive, which she did a month earlier. She has already left for another temple in Greece. Lupus is saddened, but understands that his mother, like himself, made a vow which she cannot break. The day is saved, though Magnus has managed to escape Rhodes. On the pretext of continuing his tour of Asia Minor, Flaccus swears to hunt him down and find all the children he sold as slaves, impressing Flavia.
The Delphina sets sail for her next port, laden with valuable cargoes, and carrying the four now-inseparable friends.
Allusions to Other Works and HistoryEdit
- Flavia compares the people on the ship to the Argonauts of Greek mythology, written about by Apollonius of Rhodes.
- A version of the Argonautica would later be written by Flaccus, who was a real person.
- A poem quoted by Flaccus in Scroll VI and printed in the front of the book is actually "Ithaca" by modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy.
- Flaccus also recites passages from Homer's Iliad and particularly his own version of the Odyssey, about another voyage.
- The book gives many details of sailing in Roman times, including the superstitions of sailors, and has an annotated sketch of a Roman ship.
- During a storm at sea, Lupus and the others see the ship's mast illuminated by the atmospheric phenomenon known today as St. Elmo's Fire, which was called Castor and Pollux (after the mythological eternal twins) in the ancient world. Castor and Pollux were the patron deities of sailors, and St. Elmo's fire was named for them because it often appeared on both sides of a ship's hull.