The Man Clothed in Linen begins with a virgin brought to Herod's sickbed to warm him as a maiden once warmed King David. Herod recovers and chooses a successor--Archelaus--from one of his two sons by Queen Malthace only to discover that the virgin is pregnant. He wants the child killed. Joanna the steward's wife foils him with the aid of Herod's counselor, Nicolas of Damascus. When Herod dies, Palestine erupts with fury. The Romans remove Archelaus, but Nicolas persuades them to allow Antipas (sometimes called Herod Antipas) to remain prince of Galilee and Peraea. There Nicolas and Joanna encounter the virgin's child, now twelve. In time that child, called Jesus, follows John the Baptist. Jesus, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate then compete to rule Herod's former realm.
Robert gives an overview of the book:
Herod was the ashes of the stout warrior who once wore clothing with the same pride that a lion wears its skin. He couldn’t draw enough warmth from his blankets. His knotty visage was frozen.
“I’m cold,” he complained. “Cold, cold, cold.”
Joanna wrung out another cloth she had warmed in a bowl of steaming water. Herod endured her removing the previous cloth from his brow and replacing it with this fresh one. His grizzled hair was thin and damp; the flesh of his cheeks sagged; his temples were shadowy.
“Cold in my core. My body gives me no heat.”
“Would you like a bath, sire?” Irene, the linens girl, asked.
“I’m already smothered!”
Irene peeled away one of his woolen mantles, woven from the belly of a lamb. Juzeel, the brazier boy, squeezed his bellows. His pile of coals shimmered from red to orange. That was the moment, staring at those jewel-bright lumps of fire, when Nicolas of Damascus thought of King David.
“When David was of advanced age and cold in body,” he said, trying to find a way to put this delicately, “a maiden named Abishag the Shunammite was brought to give him warmth.”
Since Herod had nine living wives (none as dear to him as Miriam, whom he had killed long ago) an outsider might have thought that one of them would comfort him, but only Malthace lurked nearby.
“I won’t do any such thing, Nicolas of Damascus,” she hissed. “You know why I’m here: to keep you from stealing this kingdom from my Archelaus for your favorite Antipas.”
“The kingdom isn’t mine to give anyone, your majesty,” Nicolas whispered, alarmed at the effect such a comment would have if Herod heard it.
“It’s only because of you the king speaks so well of Antipas—how ‘bright’ he is, how ‘subtle,’ because he dotes on hearing and reading your interminable stories about the ‘world,’” Malthace complained, her wattle quivering, her heavy eyelids raised up in anger. “They’re my sons, not yours. Archelaus is older. He deserves the crown. It’s his right!”