Maximus, bored with the political conversation of the senators filling Marcus Tullius Pollio’s atrium, stared at the dripping clepsydra, watching it mark time. He was a man of action, a legatus legionis, and a farmer. Had the other guests directed their chat to the growing unrest of the Suevi, or the opposing concerns of the wheat growers and the owners of the grape orchards, who prayed to the gods for more or less rain, respectively, he would gladly join in. Alas, his killing of Commodus in the Flavian Ampitheater only increased the intrigues and plots that roiled the government of the Empire. It was as if every drop of blood shed had sprung into a would-be Emperor or emperor-maker. The intrigue had even been too much for the experienced Lady Lucilla. Only a month ago, she had bid him farewell, and withdrawn with young Lucius to Caesar Tiberias’s old palace on the isle of Capri, there, to protect her son from being a victim in the struggle for power. She’d confided in Maximus that she suspected Pertinax of a plot to have the boy poisoned.
The Spaniard sighed. What a vile place Rome was, where his former lover had to worry about her only child being killed! Where the order had come, from Commodus’s own hand, to murder his own child, and dear wife. He had been so close — so close to his Selene and his dear son, a hand’s grasp from them in Elysium. Unfortunately, Timon, the only physician deserving of the name in the Imperial court, had thought to hold a shard of glass in front of his mouth after the guard of honor had borne his lifeless body from the rose-strewn sand of the Colosseum. And that shard revealed the moisture of breath.
He shook his head, which the nearby slave carrying a tray of goblets interpreted to mean that he wanted no wine. Mithras! In every battle I lied to myself, secretly fearing death even as I urged my men to advance against the enemy. The gods rewarded me for my mendacity and I did not die. But when I yearned for my life to end, feared Hades not, what happened? A medicus stanches my life blood and drags me back to this world. And now I do not even have a cup of good Falernian to mute the sound of all this sickening gossip!
The nomenclator appeared, signaling the dinner guests he wished them to stroll through the exquisitely marbled atrium, past the fountain watering well-tended greenery, and into the more ornate peristylium. Maximus scanned the room, looking past the gaily painted sculpture of Jupiter and Ganymede, hoping for at least one other guest who would care to discuss matters other than Pertinax’s and Julianus’s bidding war to be Caesar. Personally, he hoped his fellow general Septimus Severus would lead the superior faction and win the throne. Surely then Septimus, would want to eliminate any risk of competition and would permit a fellow general to retire. While there were many — some in this room, in fact, who thought Maximus sought the emperorship himself, Maximus knew he would prefer combat in the arena with five tigers to an Imperial fate.
Hmm. Balbus Clodius Appius – no he was firmly in Julianus’s camp, and would spend the evening praising the virtues of his patronus. Gaius Cornelius Calvus? A foolish optimist, who dreamed of the return of the Republic. The host? Cynically holding this dinner to evaluate the relative strength of each faction, so he could choose the winning one just before it was successful.
Maximus’s keen nose caught the scent of a floral fragrance. Appius’s wife, Drusilla Gordiana, had entered the peristylium. She must have bathed in that perfume. He hoped his couch would not be next to her. So Senator Appius would have another set of ears to eavesdrop on the chat. Several other senators’ wives had appeared. Maximus rolled his eyes. If I must recline with one of them, he thought, recognizing the faces, I shall be forced to endure an evening of complaints regarding the laziness of slaves in the capital, or salacious tales of who was sleeping with whom. Septima Cornelia had a daughter newly-ripened into womanhood; Numa’s balls, if I am couched with her, she will redouble her efforts to betroth us.
Pollio was not limiting his news-gathering effort to senators. Maximus recognized several wealthy merchants, a reknowned Greek rhetorician (spare me from his flowery prose, prayed Maximus), and Timon, who, upon seeing Maximus, wended through the elegantly attired throng to congratulate himself on saving the general’s life.
Maximus mustered the barest civility, curtly answering the medicus’s queries regarding the current condition of the wound Commodus inflicted upon him (yes, still sore). Yes, he had returned his troops to Ostia. Frankly, he hoped to march them north in the next month to Etruria. They were getting fat again. They needed to work off the weight with some road construction on the Via Flamina.
A swarthy, curly-haired merchant Maximus did not recognize approached, accompanied by his wife. The couple had the air of wealthy provincials, the man’s synthesis fussily folded, the woman’s hair far more simply dressed than her counterparts, though the other women eyed her pearl necklaces enviously.
“So, Timon, introduce us! This is your latest miracle, no?” The man clapped a fleshy, ruby be-ringed hand against Maximus’s back. Maximus winced; it was on the site of his wound.
Marcus Barnabus Alexander,” the man interrupted Timon to name himself. “You’re the general who became a gladiator, aren’t you? God help you that the army does not decide to take advantage of your knowledge of sand to send you to Judea. I was raised there, you know,” he declared, making a face, “my father was Silas Barnabas Alexander, commissioner of public works in Judea, appointed by Caesar Aurelius himself. Upon reaching my manhood, I left that miserable backwater for Antioch. My business took me to the Jewish community in Corinth –” here he smiled and squeezed the slender arm of the small, quiet woman beside him “to pick up the one decent-looking woman whose family was willing to permit her to live among you pig-eating heathens. Of course,” and here he sneered,” she has yet to provide me with a son, or any child for that matter, so maybe I will send her back.”
At this last statement, the woman looked down and away in a mixture of embarrassment and irritation.
“Timon, at your service, dear lady,” said the physician graciously.
“Chana bit Yitzhak, sir,” she responded, with a Greek accent Maximus assumed was overlaid with that of Judea.
“Gratia,” Alexander corrected her. “This is Rome; here you use your Latin name.”
Timon turned to Alexander. “So you finally decided to take a wife among your own people?”
“Yes, and for this the Lord curses me. Next time I’ll take a plump young honey from the Campagnia; I had a bastard by slave girl from there not long before,” replied Alexander disgustedly.
The lady said nothing at this gibe but clenched her graceful hands into small fists. Maximus thought he saw her brown eyes water before she looked away. She was not in the first blush of youth, but rather somewhere in her twenties. Old enough for her fertility to have been proven. Well, he did not care to listen to her husband’s cutting remarks. Without introducing himself to the couple, he walked towards the slave with the goblets, casually looking over his shoulder to mention his need for more wine as he left.
clepsydra — Literally, a “water thief”; a clock that measures the passage of time by drips of water filling a basis
legatus legionis — Leader of the legion; a general.
Commodus’s — Boo hiss!
medicus — A doctor.
nomenclator — The slave who calls diners to dinner.
peristylium — A public room of a well to do Roman house.
patronus — Someone to whom one pays his respects, in exchange for which one receives a dole. The Romans perfected the patronage system to a high art; what we do in modern times with our politicians is a pale imitation.
synthesis — At banquets, guests wore this brightly colored garment.
At least the woman is attractive, thought Maximus, settling next to her on the green linen cushion covering the dinner couch. He was resigned when the nomenclator announced that the Judean lady and her husband would be his couch companions. Pollio had invited 16 guests, thus numbering twice the usual number for a dinner party. As much as he did not wish to hear Alexander’s bragging and carping, the alternative couch companions were less appealing.
Perhaps if he spoke to the lady Gratia kindly, her husband would take the hint and treat her decently himself. After all, if Alexander were truly so disappointed in her inability to produce an heir, he should simply divorce her; it was easily enough done. Everyone who attended the Forum knew Domitius Lucius Flavius had sent a friend to serve the divorce papers on his wife, Antonia Magna just the other day; he was too fearful of her sharp tongue to do the deed himself.
It was obvious Alexander did not love her. He must have considered her merely another jewel to wear on his arm.
“So you have traveled from Corinth to Rome?” She had been seated in reserved silence as the other guests babbled gaily around them. Maximus sought to draw her out.
Modestly, she continued her gaze in front of her as she answered. “Yes, sir.”
Maximus’s military service had introduced him to no Jews; he had been spared the punishment of a stretch in the Judean desert. He seemed to recall, however, a fellow optio, when he was a youngster in the Roman Army, once telling him the Judean ladies always covered their heads in front of men, not of their family. And never ate in the company of strange men. Well, this was Rome — the more scandalous behavior, the more it was practiced by patrician society.
He tried to lure her from her silence again. “I have heard the Mediterranean is rough this season of the year.”
“Yes, sir,” was her only murmur again, long-lashed eyes still averted.
The merchant looked around his wife to face Maximus. “The matchmaker represented her family as being fully Hellenized. Hardly. You should have seen her struggle this evening when I took the shawl she planned to use to cover her head. It draped her like a tent! If I were a woman, not only would I do everything I could to please my husband, but I would also be eager to copy the hairstyles of the fashionable Roman matronas. In this country, only virgins wear their hair undressed. Of course,” he continued savagely, “you might as well be a virgin, for all the pleasure you give me.”
At this stream of invective, Maximus involuntarily scowled at Alexander. The man’s eyes opened wide, as did his mouth, but he closed the latter quickly again.
The couch was now silent, save for the tinkling of Chana/Gratia’s gold bracelets as she dipped her hands into the proffered salver offered by the slave. Maximus thought wistfully of his scroll of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, devoured with a simple meal of baked mullet, greens, and bread. He motioned to the slave for more Falernian.
Pollio and his wife had spared no expense on the cena, opening the gustatio with quails’ eggs baked with asparagus and crab. Maximus observed the woman beside him hesitate before eating. From the hissed epithets of her spouse he gathered that Jews had some objection to eating crabmeat. He barely touched this course himself. He preferred a simple meal of bread with a bit of baked fish, pork or chicken, as he had eaten in the legions.
The second course featured whole baked peacocks stuffed with apricots, olives, walnuts and raisins. “Perhaps this will be more to your liking,” Maximus said gently, cutting off some tender meat with his knife and offering it to her. Gratia flicked her eyes towards her husband before answering; he was imbibing his third cup of unwatered Setinian wine, chilled (as the host proudly informed the guests) with snow brought that day from the north.
“My family… It is difficult, she hesitated, “when one has been taught not to eat such food for 25 years, it is hard to change.” She glanced in Alexander’s direction again; he was preoccupied with the exquisite Egyptian slave girl carrying the silver water bowl for use in washing the guests’ hands between courses. “I have only myself to blame for this-” she shook her head in her husband’s direction. “My first husband died two years earlier; my brother took me in, of course. His wife was kind to me only in her husband’s presence. I had read The Aeneid and Caesar’s Commentaries and yearned to see the places mentioned. Marcus offered for me; my brother thought him considerate enough and willing to accept the dowry our straitened circumstances permitted.”
She sighed at these words, her eyes, now confronting Maximus’s, spoke volumes — a cast-off, taken in by her relations, resenting that they had another mouth to feed. Her brother, urged by his wife, sought the least expensive means of removing her from his house. Perhaps other men were superstitious — marriage to a barren young widow might be bad luck. It was only her beauty that would lure the superstitious into foolish risk-taking.
“And you,” she changed the subject after another look in Alexander’s direction (he had risen from the couch to relieve himself), “no spouse accompanies you. Perhaps she is lying in with a new baby?”
It was Maximus’s turn to wear sad eyes. “My wife and son were slaughtered like common criminals by the late emperor. The gods have a sense of humor; they had me sold as a slave and trained as a gladiator. I killed the late emperor – ” Gratia’s eyes widened at this information. So this was the general her husband had mentioned earlier that day in discussions with Flavinius about rivals to Didius and Julianus! “So far, I have managed to survive the turmoil in which Rome now finds herself. I come from Trujillo, in Lusitania. My father was praefect there and owned a farm on which he grew olives and wheat. From 20 years in the legions, I have had my fill of travel. I yearn only to return to my farm and the graves of my wife and child.”
“Please forgive me for raising matters so sad.” She paused again, as if internally debating a point. “They are with our Father in heaven, and His-“
“So, having a nice chat, are we?” Alexander slid clumsily back onto the couch, slurring his words. He smirked. “You little minx, I knew that shyness was just a pose. Oh slave, fetch me a papyrus — or a wax tablet will do. And more of the better wine that was offered earlier in the evening!”
Maximus saw Gratia tried to ignore her husband’s drunken outburst. Her hands shook ever so slightly as she rinsed them in the silver salver offered by the slave girl.
Alexander was writing busily as the decuria of slaves dressed in blue tunicas delivered the third course to the gilded tiger citrus tables before each couch. A pear souffle, scented with cinnamon, was laid before the diners. Maximus motioned to Gratia to reach for the sweet first.
“After you finish that morsel, my dear,” said Alexander in much too silky a voice, “you may wish to read this.” He shoved the papyrus at her.
Gratia unfolded the page and turned white. Maximus, unbidden, read over her shoulder:
In the first year of Julianus, Rome: I, Marcus, Barnabus Alexander, divorce and release of my own free will, today you, Gratia, daughter of Isaac of the tribe of Levi, who had been my wife before this time. You are free on your part to go and become the wife of any man that you wish. This is for you a writ of release and a bill of divorce. And all of your dowry I received from your brother to you will be restored, less your bride price. And at any time that you ask me, I will replace for you this document, as is proper. (1)
“Where shall I go?” whispered Gratia, talking to herself in shock, her face ashen.
“After you retrieve your clothes and jewelry from my house tonight, my dear, I really don’t care. Perhaps your new friends who frequent the catacombs will take you in…” making this dig, he smirked at Maximus. “Am I not mistaken, General, that your legion participated in the deserved torture of members of that dangerous Christos sect in the 12th year of Marcus Aurelius’s reign? One of my aunts died,” he yawned. “Silly woman.”
Maximus felt revolted and angry in turn. Gratia, a Christian? They held such outrageous beliefs — imagine a deity permitting himself to die by shameful crucifixion! They refused to serve in the military, and sought to lure the souls of slaves away from proper loyalty to their masters and to Rome. And their rites! They drank blood at their “sacred meals” — revolting! He was furious; Alexander had known what his reaction would be, must be, to a creed holding precepts so contrary to those of a loyal Roman officer. Obviously, Alexander intended to deny his wife — his former wife, now — any friends at all within Rome. And even if Gratia’s education had been the best a woman could receive, it was doubtful that she could manage to return to Judea. For that matter, she could not return there — her brother and wife would likely refuse her.
The man’s cruelty is inexcusable, concluded Maximus. I cannot permit her deluded fling at this creed to prevent me from offering assistance. She seems to intelligent to follow such a misguided sect. She probably took up with them because of her husband’s tongue. Those Christians are ever watchful of candidates among the oppressed; that is where they garner their membership.
He scowled at Alexander, noting his citizen’s ring — to think this man deserved such honorable status — pah! His expression softened at the woman. “I offer you the safety of my house, until you find suitable quarters or seek return to your family.”
cena — The evening meal.
gustatio — The first course, an appetizer/starter.
praefect — Govenor. Maximus would have had to have been a patrician (a member of the Roman nobility) to be a general.
decuria — A group of 10 slaves. The Romans, liking organization, organized their slaves in groups of 10.
(1) Yep; this is all it took to divorce someone in ancient Rome. Caesar Augustus (Octavian) tried to tighten up the rules a bit, but no one paid any attention.
Gratia returned to Maximus’s house, located on the Esquiline Hill, in his litter, more withdrawn than ever into her thoughts. Maximus walked alongside the litter-bearers, thankful of the distance between his domicile and Pollio’s — it offered a chance to replay the events of the evening, and to plot his upcoming strategy. The enemy had sought to best him, but had he lost? Maximus felt he had been outmaneuvered; worse, he had done it to himself.
Or perhaps I could blame the third, no the fourth cup of Falernian wine; the one drunk on an empty stomach after a day of listening to senators’ plots and schemes, and looking forward to an evening of more of the same. No, he’d drunk more in other circumstances. Once, on the Via Lata, he spied an elegantly attired woman who resembled his beloved Selene. He’d left his adjutant to handle the rest of the day’s business and lost himself in a caldarium, drinking heated cups of strong Neapolitan wine laced with spices. A whore, scenting his need for a woman, had approached him thereafter and was treated to a barrage of epithets only two decades of military service could teach.
He’d rejected the whore, but this dainty Jewess… At the banquet, he had looked at her reclining next to him on the couch and felt stirrings of which he was ashamed. And now, you fool, he cursed himself, you are taking her home, where you must see her? Smell her scent — what was it, vetiver and ginger? Leaving the Pollio household, he’d compounded his foolishness by offering to send his slaves to Alexander’s house on the morrow to retrieve her belongings. At least if he’d required her to undertake that effort herself, she would have been out of his house for awhile, so he could think…
Esquiline Hill — Classy digs, Max! Think Georgetown in Washington, D.C. (I don’t know the expensive real estate counterparts in the UK, France, or Italy).
Via Lata — The Romans’ version of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
caldarium — Hot spiced wine served here.
Maximus hadn’t expected to see the lady awake so early. She stood in a simple ivory tunica, unlike the bright teal dress of the previous evening, admiring the chariot race fresco on the wall adjacent to her chamber. Only the sound of the magpie’s chatter and the bubbling of the peristylium fountain disturbed the peaceful scene. Curious to see what she would examine next, Maximus did not greet her, but stayed behind his bedchamber’s curtain.
She wandered past the fountain, eyeing the tropical water plants within, and stepped around the fine floor mosaic of a pastoral scene, gazing at it from several angles before walking towards the little altar off the corner of the room. Here she stood for some time, a puzzled frown on her face, then bent over to better examine the tiny clay figurines.
Of course she would wonder at my lares, realized Maximus, recalling what a fellow officer, who’d served in Judea, had told him about the Judean religion’s prohibition against idols. But these are not idols, he answered her unvoiced exclamation. These are the representations of my household protectors and ancestors.
The magpie screeched, “Ave, ave;” apparently one of the household slaves was teaching it to talk. Irene looked up. Seeing Maximus, now standing in the peristylium, she stepped guiltily away from the altar.
“Good morning,” he said, striding towards her. “I trust you rested well? Then you have these little fellows to thank.” He picked one up to kiss.
Gratia turned to hide the expression of revulsion overwhelming her features. This man — a stranger — had generously offered her shelter. His idolatry, that was a matter for God’s judgment, not hers.
“I thought, being a military man, you would follow Mithras,” she said guardedly.
“That I am, but these are my household geniuses. I have been without them for only a short period in my life. They have protected me and I honor them.” He was curious. “How do you know of Mithras?”
“We, that is, my father, and now brother, own an olive grove outside of Corinth. The praefect visited my father when I was a child, to inform him that he was building a mithraeum thereon. Once, after the temple had been built, I took a dare from my brother and entered it. I stayed within as long as I dared to remember enough features to describe to our old slave Invictus, who then assured my brother I had fulfilled the dare. I thought you worshipped truth and light, and sacrificed bulls.”
Maximus nodded, startled by her audacity. “We do. You were lucky not to be caught. The rites are for men only; had you been found, you would have been killed.”
Sheepishly, Gratia nodded. “Invictus told me the same.”
“And your slave should be punished for explaining the holy mysteries to you. “
“He is beyond your reach, sir, in the afterlife.”
Maximus smiled. The little hands had balled themselves into fists again. This woman had spirit. A little soldier. “For your own sake,” he gently chided her, motioning to the tablinium, “I recommend you display your knowledge to no one. Come, have some breakfast. After I have received my clients this morning, I will be at the Forum and the Imperial Palace, seeking permission to leave Rome; I will instruct the slaves to honor your demands. You have the freedom of my house.”
“A general needs permission? You wish to leave Rome?” Gratia said a few words in a tongue with which the general was not familiar before consuming her porridge. Maximus assumed she’d voiced some sort of Judean blessing.
“Yes-” he focused on the platter of bread proffered by a kitchen slave. Just as well he’d made his mind up to leave last evening. He had been around her only a short while this morning. Already he’d caught himself admiring her dimples when she smiled. He would have to have a word with her about this worship of Christos before he left; in private, with slave ears out of hearing. She takes too many risks for religion.
“Yes, I wish to leave Rome. Especially in these times. The current Emperor and all of the intriguers in the Senate want control over the Army. For that, they must control the generals. And I must leave Rome because — because the Via Flamina is in disrepair, and it is part of the Army’s job to maintain the roads.”
“Marcus and I had traveled on that road from Bononia a month ago — it seemed in excellent condition.”
“Constant maintenance,” Maximus was hasty in his reply. “Ah, my slave is signaling me; the first of my clients are here. Excuse me, Lady Gratia.” He bolted from the breakfast room to his office off the atrium.
lares — Oh, you’ve seen Gladiator ten or twenty times; you know who these little clay figurines are.
Ave, ave — The bird’s been taught a greeting.
geniuses — Divine protectors of Maximus’s household.
mithraeum — The name of a temple dedicated to Mithras. This sect was very popular among the Roman military; I cannot imagine Maximus would not have been a devotee.
tablinium — A smaller room towards the back of a Roman house, where breakfast would have been consumed.
permission — Yes; a general needed permission to leave Rome and join his troops. The reason for this requirement was twofold: troops were forbidden in the capital, for fear of them mutinying against the government. The general was kept away from his troops so he couldn’t lead them against the government. He could only join them at Caesar’s/Senate’s bidding.
roads — Construction work was what the Roman Army spent most of its time doing, not whacking Germans.
Having received the respects of his clients, including a few grizzled veterans with whom he was pleased to chat about past campaigns, Maximus hastened to the Forum. The area was in an uproar. Apparently, during the night, the Praetorians had received sufficient bribes to replace Helvius Pertinax with Didius Julianus. Uneasily, Maximus ordered his litterbearers to the Palatine. He neither liked nor disliked the new Emperor, but this political turbulence was dangerous for anyone with power, including himself. Better the battlefield than the backstabbing sure to follow in the next few months, as Julianus sought to seal his authority and prevent the Praetorians from replacing him with another.
It is time for a payback. “The Praefect Quintus,” he ordered the elaborately coiffed greeter, and fixed the young man with a scowl designed to send him in the direction of Maximus’s former subordinate’s quarters at the palace.
“I have already dispensed my patronage money, Maximus,” said Quintus drily, waving the slaves out of the chamber. “So it must be information that you seek.”
“I wish to leave the City.” Maximus used a voice of command, hoping memory would make Quintus obey. Quintus, however, knew his status as a Praetorian meant he reported to no one but Caesar. And perhaps not even to he.
“So unhappy with your new ruler? Or,” Quintus added, appraising his old leader, “you go to meet with Septimus Severus to pledge him your loyalty?”
“Neither,” growled Maximus. “I would escape to the farm Marcus Aurelius promised me and the Senate finally awarded me in Tuscania, but some would assume I was alone with my plots, and I do not mean land. So instead I wish to take my army” Quintus’s left eyebrow raised at the use of the word ‘my’ “and move them and myself out of harm’s way. Surely there is some road repair required in the north? Or perhaps the Suevi need to be retaught that we have beaten them?” Maximus was pleased to note that Quintus’s smile echoed his own, as they recalled their marches together outside of Vindobona and Colonia Agrippina.
“The Emperor approves your request.” Quintus walked Maximus toward the doorway. M aximus cocked an eyebrow. So Quintus spoke for Caesar now.
“You have some other reason for leaving, Maximus, that you are not sharing with me; I trust it is nothing that would cause Caesar any, ah, concern.” He slapped his former general fraternally on the shoulder. Maximus appreciated that the Praetorian took care to avoid the spot of Commodus’s wound. “Watch out for Gaius Pescennius Niger’s and Decimus Clodius Albinus’s supporters, old friend. They will be watching for you, and I am told there are factions supportive of them outside of Latium.”
The Praefect Quintus — Boo! Hiss!
drily — Actually, Maximus hadn’t been in Rome long enough to have become a patron and have a following of clients. Quintus is just being sarcastic (see the comments made in the above chapter under ‘roads‘).
Gratia had been told stories of Roman Legion’s mobility by elders in Corinth who recalled their fathers’ tales of the crushed Bar Kochba rebellion. The speed of Maximus’s preparations to leave Rome still astonished her. His leaving was good for her; she had been at his home for a full week; longer than that and gossip would surely begin.
Yet she would miss him. His dealings with her were so different than those she had experienced with men of her own culture; more as an equal than as an attractive piece of property whose value had to be guarded. She had grown up shuttered away by a society which thought it proper for women to make only limited public appearances, and then only under the constant supervision of a male relative. Maximus had suggested she might enjoy shopping on the Via Lata — accompanied only by her maidservant and litterbearers! She smiled. She had, wiggling her feet to admire her new kidskin sandals.
At breakfast and dinner, if the general’s business obligations did not require him to attend the evening meal elsewhere, he chatted companionably about a range of subjects, and did not voice surprise at her erudition. Apparently, well-born Roman women were at least as well educated as the men, even though their schooling was solely taken at home from their litterators. He laughingly quoted Juvenal’s mild outrage at this circumstance, “Let not the wife of your bosom know all history; let there be some things in her reading which she does not understand.” Why, a Roman woman could even own property and appear in court on her own behalf! Without such authority, the general’s late wife could scarce have managed their properties while he was on maneuvers.
Gratia felt a bit queasy. Perhaps the dinner’s turbot had been off? She rubbed her stomach and continued her reverie while her maidservant brushed her hair into a shiny bronze wave and braided it for the night. She grieved for Maximus’s sorrow when he spoke of his wife and child. He had no intention of remarrying — he repeated that emphatically, as if in debate with an unseen partner to their conversations. How curious; in her culture one was expected to wed again, after a decent interval. And bear children. She had wed, but she had failed in her primary duty.
Owww. That feeling again was accompanied by a cramp. I shall think no more of children tonight, she vowed This pain will surely then go away.
litterators — Teachers of children.
Maximus found himself in a fierce storm, on the sea. A woman was crying; Selene? No. Not a dream. He opened his eyes to his chief house slave; by the side of that man, Gratia’s handmaid was tearing at her clothes and sobbing.
“The Lady Gratia,” the slave spoke loudly in an effort to be heard above the weeping. “Some sort of bloody flux.”
Maximus arose and pulled his tunica over his chiseled frame. The maidservant clutched at him and tried to drag him to her mistress’s chamber. He followed to the outside of the heavy velvet curtains separating the room from the peristylium. Strange, almost animal sounds of pain, alternating with gritted words – entreaties? emanated from within.
He gasped as a female slave carried out bedlinens. They were soaked in blood. “Oh, dear ancestors,” he whispered urgently, “I cannot endure the death of another one.” Immediately, aware the slaves were watching his visage while listening to the tormented noise, he assumed command. “Hector, send our fastest runner for Timon. You, her maid, when did this start?”
“I, I don’t know sir,” she whimpered. “I sleep soundly; I awakened only moments before I searched out your chief slave. There was blood everywhere, everywhere; oh, my lady is dying!”
Maximus rubbed his forehead; this slave was worse than useless. If the ill woman had any chance at all, she must be encouraged to hold on until Timon could administer to her. He had not seen so much blood come from a civilian body before. It was as if — as if-“
“When was her last monthly course?” he shook the maidservant roughly so she would focus on his question. She sobbed, he shook her violently. “When?”
“Oh sir,” she whimpered, “my lady remarked the other day she was overdue, and blamed it on the shock of the divorce. Oh, she has miscarried!” This insight led to more helpless wails. Maximus tossed her aside and pushed through the curtains.
Gratia was curled up tightly, on her side, very pale. The fresh tunica a slave had sought to cover her with had already absorbed great spots of blood. He looked at her face; her eyes were staring within, oblivious to everything but the pain.
Maximus knelt by the bed, and brushed the unbound tendrils of hair from her face. “Gratia,” his voice was low; his throat, tightened, would not permit a louder sound. “I am here. I will help you fight the pain. I am a solider, I have had many wounds, one mortal. So here,” he reached for her clenched hand and uncurled it next to his heart, “give your pain to me. I have sent for the best physician in Rome; you shall be well. You shall.”
“Runner,” Maximus ordered the bidden slave. “Take this message to my adjutant; I remain here in Rome for the month; go!” He looked up into Timon’s face; the medicus was grimly wiping his hands clean with a vinegar-soaked cloth.
“How long has the Lady Gratia been here?”
“So then, this was not yours, unless you and she earlier -“
“She was two months along,” Timon informed him. “I could not identify the sex of what she lost. Poor cursed woman; her husband divorces her for barrenness and less than a month later, she proves her womb can bear fruit; at least for a short while.”
Maximus was exasperated. He only wanted one question answered, and Timon was verbosely avoiding it. “Will she live?”
“She is in the hands of her God,” was the frank response. “You may have lost more blood than she, but you have more to lose. The gods granted me a miracle by giving me the power to obtain your survival after your stabbing in the Colosseum. Thanks to that, it has been standing room only in my examining room ever since.” Timon’s little joke did not bring any light to Maximus’s eyes. “I do not know if I can witness a second miracle, but if I do, I must give you credit. How did you know to press on her belly?”
“It was how I staunched other wounds, in the field.” Maximus eyed the drawn curtain to Gratia’s chamber.
“Go in, talk to her,” Timon encouraged. “She is asleep, but she will hear you. She is afraid, ashamed; she murmured ‘worthless, worthless’ before I medicated her. You reassure your troops before battle, I daresay? Try such on her.”
Maximus’s eyes watered with the dimness of the room as they adjusted from the light of the peristylium. Still curled up, Gratia seemed translucent, not merely pale. Her breathing was shallow, but uninterrupted by sounds of pain. He knelt and stroked her cheek.
“What medicine did you provide? Poppy juice, mandrake? Willow bark? I shall pay for it.”
“Gracious, willow would have increased her bleeding,” Timon smiled thinly. “As for the other pharmaceuticals… I promise not to pick up a gladius and wear a general’s cloak if you swear not to be a physician.” Appraisingly, Timon viewed Maximus’s hand caressing Gratia’s shoulder. “She will need a reason to live. Provide it for her. Well, I must go; Senator Flaucus’s gout is tormenting him again. I shall order him a diet of boiled fish and greens. After a week of eating properly he will feel better and pay me whatever charge I name. Then he will return to his outrageous feasts, and thereby assure me gold in the next month. Vale,” he waved, and returned to the atrium where his litterbearers waited.
Vale — Hasta la vista, baby.
Gratia survived, but Timon was correct; for weeks she didn’t want to. Maximus reasoned with her desperately. Yes, Romans could divorce childless wives, but such was rare; instead, they merely adopted a grown man as an heir. How could she believe the baby’s loss to be punishment? She had done nothing wrong. She was worthy, she was…
Beautiful. He caught himself before speaking it. And I, he realized, am in love. So foolishly, so deeply so that I sent a slave to the house of Phoebe Crispina Macrima, after luring Gratia to disclose the woman to be a follower of Christos. And I invited Phoebe Crispina, repeatedly, into my house, to pray strange prayers with Gratia. Still, if these Christians could believe a crucified man rose from the dead after three days in the Judean heat, they could convince themselves of anything. The visits had seemed to help. Gratia did not refuse food after the first, and permitted herself to be carried into the pleasant sunshine of the garden after the third.
I should encourage Gratia to accept Phoebe Crispina’s hospitality, he mused; then I could join my troops with a clear conscience, and perhaps unsnare myself from this spell. But he changed the subject abruptly when the matrona made that very offer. Instead, he gratefully provided his lares with fine bread and incense daily, blessing them for their protection of the sweet addition to his residence.
To protect the lady’s honor, Maximus took several actions. He let slip a rumor that he had taken on a huge gambling debt, and had remained in town to supervise his factotum responsible for his business affairs. He tried to act drunk, foolish at banquets, and at dice. Better that than to read a salacious note in the Acta Diurna. He could imagine what that tabloid would report:
A certain former gladiator is entertaining the charming former wife of a wealthy Judean grain merchant at his home on the Esquiline. Sources close to the gladiator, who calls the Felix Legion his second home, admit he enters the lady’s chambers nightly, and that she does not refuse him.
matrona — Matron, married woman, not a young woman. Think of the difference between señora and señorita.
honor — Maximus could just have said that he wished to stay at home while his guest was so ill, but he feared the salacious gossip that would ensue against her (what a gentleman Max is! That’s why we love him so…)
Acta Diurna — A popular Roman newspaper. Think Rupert Murdoch.
Only after the second month of Gratia’s recovery, when Maximus received gossip at the Trajan Baths that the lately empowered Emperor Clodius Albinus believed the general had remained in Rome to plot against Caesar, did Maximus again consider rejoining his troops.
“God bless you and keep you, and make his face shine upon you, and grant you peace,” Gratia whispered the blessing of Aaron to the retreating, armor-clad back of Maximus as he marched past the marble entry columns of his house. He had chided against her insistence that she walk him to his door, but his blue-green eyes smiled tenderly at her farewell.
The Mediterranean, Gratia thought; his eyes glow like the waters in the harbor at Corinth. After the general’s litter could no longer be seen in the street, she withdrew from the doorway. Waving aside the offer of help from her maid, she retreated to the garden and her weaving, but first she paused to rest before the little altar.
“He believes in you,” she reminded the tiny clay guardians, “so you are duty-bound to watch over him too.”
Maximus dreamt he was aboard ship; how it rocked! He tried to stand up, but he could not move his arms or legs; it was as if they were burdened with weights. Fire- there must be a fire on the ship, and it was eating his right leg; ah, what pain!
The sensation brought him to. He was bound like a pig for market, slung across the back of a horse — where was his own?
“He’s up. Let Gaius know. Rough hands shoved a cloth bag over his head and pulled it back harshly. “We can break you neck just like that, so don’t try anything foolish.” Maximus swore and was rewarded with a sharp cuff to his ear. “Like I said, General,” the voice smirked, “there are powerful men who’ll pay for your dead body too.”
After that, Maximus was quiet, straining to count the number of hoofbeats, to determine the number of horses and riders. His memory returned, along with a throbbing pain on his scalp. He had ridden ahead with ten men, having received word that the bridge over the stream had washed out, he wanted to investigate the impact on the march of his legions. The assailants had dressed as highwaymen, but they were not bandits; such was clear from their speech. His adjutant had taken an arrow to the throat almost instantly. The optio and standard-bearer quickly moved to surround him. Although Maximus was grateful for their loyalty, the pair blocked the sharp arc of his sword, rendering it more difficult for him to cleave his first two attackers in twain.
He recalled the lucky strike of the third bandit, with a blade so sharp it pierced the greave on his leg and bit a fiery line into his flesh. No matter, the optio had repaid the man, who was surely now across the Styx. Having dispatched the remainder of the false highwaymen, Maximus took stock of his men. The standard-bearer, barely wearing more than the peach fuzz of youth on his chin, clutched ashen at a wound to the chest; too bad Timon is in Rome, Maximus mused, I think only the medicus can save that one. Three legionaries lay dead atop the five men they had slaughtered. The army would set a proper funeral pyre. He groaned at the next sight — the bridge was whole! Before he could yell, “Trap!” another ten bandits were upon them. Then the blow to the head, and then this.
The direction of the horses was changed; knowing he was conscious, his attackers deliberately sought to confuse him as to their course. One thing was certain, they had abandoned the Via Flamina, else the century of troops on the path would have rescued him.
Maximus could feel the cool, moist air of night when he was roughly dragged off the horse, and up stone stairs — climbing, climbing, climbing. With each step his leg wound wept blood, his forehead burned. He was pushed onto the floor. The snap of a lock in the door, and the bag over his head was removed.
Per our contract,” said a bandit, now masked, to an equally disguised leader.
The leader tossed the other a jingling leather bag. “Go,” he demanded. He waited until the footfall of the bandit was no longer audible on the stairs outside, then turned to a subordinate. “Lucius is to track them and kill them tonight. I want no clowns who try to play both sides for profit. And retrieve the gold — the amount was 30,000 sesterces. Do not doubt that I will count it, either!” The subordinate left.
“Now, as for you,” gloated the ringleader to Maximus. “Trajan, Hadrian, both from Hispania. You probably thought you would assume their throne. Sorry. I will feed you a slow-acting poison this evening. By the time you find help; and as empty as this area is, help is unlikely; you will be dead. How sad, your finders will think your heart gave out.”
optio — Think “lieutenant.” You may picture Sean Bean here, if you wish.
century — A hundred soldiers.
sesterces — Wow, someone really wants ol’ Max dead; that’s a lot of money.
Maximus writhed himself free from his bindings; a trick he’d been taught by a Carthagenian gladiator enabled him to pop a shoulder blade from its socket. By Mithras, it hurt, but Maximus had no desire to end his life in this hut. Hmm. He could reach the window, but only a small child could exit it. His eyes searched for something to use as a weapon. Ah, a glass bottle.
Maximus waited until the ringleader had locked the door and started to prize his mouth apart to admit the contents of a small vial. The broken glass cut the man’s throat silently. Maximus spat away the drop of poison that had touched his lips and fished through the dead man’s clothing for his weapons. Curious, he withdrew the man’s mask and memorized the features, then took the corpse’s signet ring.
“Done,” he muttered, in what he hoped was an approximation of the dead man’s voice. Two guards strolled in and were quickly dispatched by a vicious kick and a short sword.
As the general hoped, there were no other kidnappers about; the ringleader too much feared disclosure. The flight down the step reopened his leg wound, but the sight of a tall bay horse gladdened his heart. So they had not killed Argento!
d friend,” he leaned to the stallion’s ear as he encouraged a gallop, “I am glad they did not blind you. I am counting on you to take me to my troops.”
XIV (back to top)
The moon slept. The stars barely pierced the blackness of the countryside, but it mattered not; Maximus could not focus his eyes. He judged he had ridden 10 leagues and should not be far from the city outskirts. He doubled over Aristo in a cramp. The poison was very strong, for so little to have so much effect. The pain emanating from his chest permitted only half breaths.
Hands seized him from his horse. He tried to fight them off, but his punches were that of a young child. As he plunged into unconsciousness, he imagined the faces of Timon and Gratia, just as he once had envisioned Selene and his son. Ah, now I know I am dying. That was his last thought.
“We cannot bring him in — the risk is too great!”
“He will not harm us. I vouch for him. So will she.”
“So do I. Would you reject the teachings of our Lord and leave him lying in the road to die?”
“Argue with me later. Now, help me carry him within. To that spot, over there; it is not too damp. Bring the torch; I need to see his lips. See, look, see there is a trace of liquid. Distinctive smell. You, Phyllida, go and fetch my bag; I left it with my horse. Quickly!”
“We should baptize him.”
“Later.” The reply was pragmatic. “First we save his mortal life, then his immortal one.”
“Look, he is coming to!”
“Should we not then blindfold him?”
“No, the poppy juice will render him lightheaded, as if drunk; he will be harmless.”
“I thaw, I thaw I sawyu.” The victim’s mouth worked clumsily around the words.
“What was that? Did he say something?”
“Patchmeyupagain? Hmmm…” Maximus offered an unfocused, goofy look.
“I am going to relieve myself, You stay with him. If his breathing falters, one of you come and get me.”
“Sawyu. Osobutifullll. Wanchu. Laaawvyou, hmmm?” He turned to the lady kneeling beside him.
“Shhh; rest now. Oh dear, what do I do now?” Her blush was visible even in the flickering light of the torches.
“Can you move his arm?”
“No; he has a grip like iron. Please find Timon.”
Distinctive smell — I think the assassins tried to poison Maximus with a tincture made from the foxglove plant. We call this tincture digitalis; it can cause heart attack if too much is given.
baptize him — It is not Gratia who says this. She believes in freedom of religion. Remember, she talked to Maximus’s lares earlier in the story?
Consciousness returning, Maximus became aware of a splitting headache, the hint of vetiver and ginger mixed with damp, a soft arm under his own, and a rounded buttock pressed against his erection. His eyes opened to the sight of Gratia’s unbound tresses. Perhaps I can shift without waking her, he hoped.
At his movement, she shifted as much as his clasp would permit. Clearly, she had been awake for some time.
“How do you feel? You were wounded and poisoned when we brought you in.” Her embarrassment was obvious by the tilt of her averted face.
Mortified, Maximus moved his arm. Gratia sat up.
“As if I were kicked in the head and the shin by my horse. Who are ‘we’? Where am I?”
Timon, to Maximus’s astonishment, appeared from behind an opening in the mold-encrusted wall.
“You are in the catacombs two leagues from Rome. Frankly, Maximus,” he added drily, “this saving you from the peace of Elysium is becoming a habit. You must either cultivate stronger friends, or weaker enemies.”
Maximus rubbed his head. “I was waylaid by supporters of Clodius Albinus, disguised as bandits. They must have bribed a legionary to lie about the condition of a bridge my army was to cross. I went to investigate. My companions were killed. They sought to kill me too, with a vial of poison. Only a drop touched my lips.”
“The drug you were given could kill an elephant if the beast received an eggshell full. But I suggest you stay here for awhile until we determine how best to contact your troops.”
“But why are you here? Surely, Timon, your skills do not also extend to prognostication,” Maximus smiled.
“This is where I worship,” was the simple reply. “Gratia” the physician gestured to her as she brushed the bedstraw off of her tunica, “and I have given our word to the others that you will not report us.”
“Of course not. Fine gratitude that would be.” He tried to stand. Timon caught him.
“Rest now. The antidote I gave you was merely another poison to cancel out the effects of the first. You should feel groggy for some time.”
“I do,” Maximus admitted. “Does it have …other effects?”
“Well, it is known to loosen the tongue and reduce the inhibitions.” Maximus felt a chill, recalling how he’d entwined himself about Gratia’s form. //What did I say last night? And then do?//
Timon reassuringly clapped him on the back. “Be easy; your virtue as a disciplined Roman soldier is secure.”
Maximus observed Gratia color at this exchange. He was not so sure Timon was telling the truth.
One by one, the worshippers at the catacombs cautiously appeared. Maximus was not surprised to see Phoebe Crispina Macrima, but he was relieved when Gratia informed him she had chosen to stay at his residence rather than accept Phoebe Crispina’s offer of asylum after he had left. The sight of others raised his eyebrows; that senator? This merchant? In gratitude and a bit of grudging admiration, he resolved to forget the sight of them as soon as he left this temporary refuge.
Their rites, at least, were not as perverse as rumor contended. They pretended to eat a simple meal; apparently a copy of the last one shared by their lord. They read to one another the writings of other followers of their creed, including one fellow who had been a Roman citizen. They promised brotherly love to one another. They abjured one another to tolerate the troubles of this life, in expectation of reward in the one of which they were confident would occur after death. Their expectation of the eventual fall of Rome was, of course, ridiculous, but as long as they made no effort to bring such about, he supposed they could be tolerated. To his Stoic-influenced philosophy, their creed was far less offensive than the decadent rituals of the devotees of Isis.
All in all, he concluded these followers of Christos were rather brave to risk so much for their beliefs. Being a soldier, he respected their courage. Such they certainly had, for to assist his recovery, they brought food, drink, and changes of clothes to the catacombs. The portage of these items was surely hard to disguse, and did not mesh with their usual excuse to non-believers in their households that they were going shopping or to spend a sennight’s hospitality with a friend.
Somehow, too, they contacted his surviving adjutant, both to assure him of General Meridias’s well-being, and to arrange for the general’s return to the legion one moonless night. Or was it perhaps that young Quirinus Albus had an association with these religionists that Maximus had not suspected?
So it was that he found himself entering the camp of Septimus Severus, outside of Mediolanum, a month later, after slogging through the cold rain and mud of winter. He knelt before his fellow general, making his loyalties clear.
“So, Maximus, you have preserved the Felix Legions and kept it safe from Clodius Albinus’s use. You have topped this feat by keeping the roadways and aqueducts of Tusculum in splendid repair,” observed his swarthy counterpart wryly. “Why, I should order you and your troops to my homeland in Cyrenaica; there is great need of construction there.”
Maximus laughed. “I have had enough of African shores to last me a lifetime. Did you know Hades has another name? It is Zucchabar…”
The imperial city was unchanged when Septimus Severus permitted Maximus to return, eleven months later; after requiring Maximus to supervise some road building in Cyrenaica. To the Spaniard’s provincial eye, the capital’s population was overcrowded, its streets were too many and too noisy, especially at night, when the carts forbidden during the day rolled through, carrying every sort of merchandise and product, and its public buildings overwhelming in their size and elegance.
How fortunate he felt to know that soon he would come here no more! Septimus Severus, persuaded of his loyalty, had offered him an olive grove adjoining Maximus’s farm in Tusculum; in exchange, Maximus was to relinquish his role as legio legatus of the Felix Legion and agree to be exiled from the capital. Some might call that punishment; Maximus thanked his lares for their efforts. He would sell his house to a factotum of Septimus (for an excellent profit, he’d been assured) and vacate the same within a month.
“General, you are making your horse dance,” laughingly accused young Quirinus, as they neared the city. Quirinus was pleased too; he would become an adjutant of the only worthy candidate, to his mind, for the title of Caesar. Serving Septimus Severus would be an honor, though it would not equal service to Maximus Decimus Meridias.
Maximus relinquished the reins to the slave assigned to the entryway of his home. Clearly, his chief servant had been on the watch for him; the slaves were assembled in neat decuria to greet their master’s return. He nodded in greeting, accepting their genuine expressions of relief to see their lord’s safe return.
There was one person he missed. Gratia. In his mind’s eye, he had imagined her standing by the household altar, holding bread and salt for him to offer in thanks to his lares for his arrival. Her tresses would be loosely bound about her head; the removal of a few combs and they would slip against his embracing arms as he carried her to his chamber…
“Demetrius.” Hearing his name, his chief slave stepped forward. “The Lady Gratia,” Maximus spoke in an undertone; there was no need to trigger gossip among the staff, “does she remain with the Lady Phoebe Crispina Macrima?”
“She visits often with that lady,” Demetrius replied, “sometimes staying the night; however, she has resided at your dwelling, sir, all this months since your departure. The blame is mine, sir, if such was not in keeping with your wishes. I anticipate her return today in time for cena.”
“You have done well,” Maximus replied solemnly. A wisp of an idea condensed into his thoughts. “Has she sought other residence than mine?”
“No, domine. In fact, last week a tradesperson delivered fabric for the lady’s-“
“-My lady’s,” corrected Maximus, softly.
The slave’s dark brown eyes flickered in an otherwise impassive face. “My lady’s new tunica and palla. The softest Milesian wool and silk of a very handsome shade of green, sir. The lady did remark out loud to herself that the silk was the very color of your eyes. I do not believe she knew that I heard her.”
Those same eyes twinkled. “You seek to be most observant, then?”
“A wise servant attempts to identify the desires of his master,” he watched Maximus’s expression as he added “and mistress, before they are voiced.”
“Then, Demetrius, I have this command of you. My lady has a small scroll, in Greek — you can read that, can you not?” At the slave’s acknowledgment, he continued. “It contains letters concerning that curious religion of Christos; can you find it?”
“Indeed, my lord, I know precisely where she keeps it.”
Maximus pursed his lips at this quickly-conveyed information. Was Demetrius a follower as well? He chose, for the moment, not to ask.
“There is a passage in the scrolls; find it for me, and bring it to the tablinum.”
A short time later, Demetrius appeared in Maximus’s office, the scroll partially unrolled. Maximus scanned it. So he had recalled the phrases correctly. He handed the scroll back to the servant.
“For this intelligence, you have served me well. Septimus Severus will be purchasing this house and I will be vacating it for a country home in Tusculum. I give you a choice; remain with the house, Severus is reputedly a good master, or come with me. Do not answer me now, but think about it. Tomorrow morning I will take you to the Temple of Feronia to give you your freedom; you may tell me then.”
Demetrius’s mask broke into a broad grin.
Maximus grinned back. “One more order for you to follow, Demetrius.”
“Whatever you desire, sir.”
“Should anyone ask you-” he murmured his request into Demetrius’s ear. “And of course, upon Lady Gratia’s return, no mention of our conversation.”
Gratia alighted from the litter and made her way into the atrium. Demetrius approached her.
“Peace be with you,” the slave whispered.
“And unto you, peace,” she smiled. She had discovered Demetrius secretly belonged to her sect when she came upon him reading a letter of Paulus. The slave was a very useful friend, loyally silent regarding her travels to the catacombs.
“My lady, the general has returned. I hope you have not made other arrangements for dinner; he requires you to dine with him tonight.”
“Then I will require you to send a runner to Timon and express my regrets. Who are his other guests?” She unwrapped the shawl from her head and handed it to her maidservant.
“None, my lady.”
Gratia’s brows rose in an arch. She felt uncomfortable. When she was ill, she had been able to rationalize the indecency of dining alone with a man to whom she was not related on the ground that the General was too much a man of honor to take advantage of her condition. That, however, was before the evening he had ridden, drugged and wounded, into the catacombs and had slurred words of desire when the poppy juice took effect. Or later, when he had held her body tightly to his own, his arousal quite evident. If he had recognized her response, fortunately he had been too drugged to mention it. She had never known him to be anything but moderate in his consumption of wine, always watering it. But he had been on campaign all these months. Did he take advantage of the camp followers? She imagined him leading another woman to his tent, and colored, furious with her musings. And her jealousy.
“Are you well, my lady?” The maidservant followed her mistress’s flickering expressions with concern.
“No, I have a headache. Bring me a tincture of willow bark and leave me.” //I cannot endure your babbling// she thought. Immediately she felt guilty. //It is I who am at fault, yet am directing my anger at innocent others. I will read from my secret scroll, and pray for forgiveness.//
But her scroll had gone missing. Perplexed, she wandered through the peristylium; perhaps an illiterate slave, cleaning her chambers, had thought it a scroll belonging to the master and had removed it?
The lares caught her eye. She had spoken to them often when the general was gone //Father, forgive me// she thought to herself. But Maximus believed in them so, and perhaps they did have some special power, like the bones of a saint. //The way he has spoken of Selene, she might as well have been a saint// Gratia told herself, a bit jealously.
If the household gods knew the whereabouts of her papyrus, they kept the secret. She spoke to them anyway.
“Oh, little ones; I am so glad your master is home. Forgive my indecent thoughts about him.”
Gratia insisted that her maidservant dress her simply. Plain pearl drops in her ears, ivory bracelets on her arms, her hair coiled in a neat braid about her head. The maidservant clucked; she thought it rude to greet the General thusly, he who had given them room and board for over a year.
She had hoped to slip into the triclinium first, but Maximus was already upon his couch when she entered.
How beautiful she is, he pondered. She requires no adornment to offset her charms. He gestured to the musician seated by the frescoed wall to begin playing his lyre.
“I apologize that I was not here to greet you upon your return, sir,” Gratia murmured, seating herself in her chair. “You are well?” Indeed, he appeared so, any pallor from city life replaced with a tan, the muscled fitness of his body evident under his tunic. Why did I permit myself to think that? She felt her face redden.
“My health improves with every step I take from Rome,” he replied.
“Then you are in great jeopardy sir, being here.”
“No,” he reassured her. “I will not be here long; Septimus Severus has consolidated his position as Caesar; he has granted me my request to leave the city permanently and return to country life.”
Gratia saw Maximus’s eyes soften at the thought. “I am pleased for you. Where is your farm?”
“Outside of Tirrenia, in Tusculum. I will have a grove of olives; it will be like my family’s farm in Lusitania.”
“So you are keen to beat your sword into a ploughshare,” she smiled.
Maximus was puzzled. “A sword would make a very small plough.”
“The phrase comes from a book of my people. ‘They shall turn their swords into ploughshares. Neither shall they make war anymore.”
Maximus carefully measured water into the wine, and poured Gratia a cup. “From the history I have read, your people did not heed their own words until Rome required them to do so, scattering them over the four winds and away from Jerusalem. Please have some olives; I am told they were picked from my farm.”
Gratia nodded, pensive. “Thank you. The Emperor Titus’s destruction of Jerusalem was our punishment for not heeding the words of our God.” She looked up at the platter laid on the table; bass with wild mushrooms, poached in white wine and marjoram by the aroma of it.
Maximus broke the fish open with his fingers, revealing it to have been stuffed with oysters and artichokes. So extravagant a dish, Gratia marveled. A reward to himself for a successful campaign, she wondered. As he scooped up some morsels to pass them to her plate, his hand touched her own. Gratia imagined a spark running down her arm. No, this meal was meant to be more than a reward. Rather, it was an offer. She took a bite of the food, grateful for the opportunity it presented her to be silent. A mistress, he wanted her to be his mistress. She could not live with herself were she to become a mistress. Yet this sin was oh, so tempting.
“We shall vacate this house at the end of the month,” Maximus informed her. “I will visit the market tomorrow at the Circus Maximus to buy you a horse on which you will ride to the farm.”
Direct; how very like a general, Gratia concluded. Well, I shall be too. She took a sip of wine to clear her throat. “Your generosity, sir, I confess I have taken far too much advantage of it. But I… rather than your services in purchasing me a horse, sir, if I could ask you to assist me in obtaining the services of a reliable sea captain, to return me to Corinth.”
Maximus drained his cup. He anticipated her response. “No,” he refused. Her surprise at his refusal, he also expected. “You have shared my home for over a year, have you not?”
“Yes,” she admitted, puzzled.
“My servants advise me that you have not at any time spent three days away. Did you not enjoy the bass?”
“It was delicious. It’s just… I had a headache earlier today. I had hoped it would be gone by now, but it is not.” She hoped her excuse would permit her to retire, to still the feelings swirling through her. The need to feel his naked flesh against her own, to be possessed by him.
My poor darling, he thought. “Some wine with honey, that will help. I will ask a slave to bring it; it is time for dessert anyway.” He smiled. “I recall you are fond of peaches.”
Two kitchen slaves placed a silver platter on the table. A pastry swan appeared to swim on a bed of ice. A servant lifted off the upper half of the swan to reveal the pastry filled with a pale orange custard. The other servant offered Gratia a spoon. Gratia placed a bit of the custard into her mouth. How odd!
“It is cold, like ice,” she marveled. “It does taste of peaches.” She took another spoonful. “I have never had anything like this before — what is it?” She looked at Maximus quizzically. “If you discovered this while campaigning, then service in the Legions is not as strenuous as has been reported.”
Maximus laughed. “I ate coarse bread, cabbage, and pork most nights, I assure you. But Septimus Severus served me a sweet dish such as this after my meeting with him.” He looked at her tenderly. “Do you feel better?”
Maximus’s gaze reminded Gratia of the reason for her white lie. She tried again to escape, this time using humor. “Are you offering me a residence at your farm so that you may have the excuse to serve this at dinner?”
“If you desire it, I will order runners to bring ice to the kitchen so it may be prepared daily.” He gestured around the room with his spoon. “You have stayed at my home for over a year. You are, therefore, my common-law wife, by the tradition of usus.” His voice turned husky. “I… I love you, dear Gratia. If you do not feel similarly for me, I hope such feelings will grow in you, in the future. But I cannot let you go.”
Dear God, thought Gratia, I do not deserve this answer to my prayers. One last means of escape, though she yearned to be his prisoner. “Your household gods, they condone your marriage to a woman who worships the Son of Man?”
Maximus, smiling, completed his ambush. “Your letter writer, Paul, did he not state that a wife married to an unbeliever makes the unbeliever holy, and therefore she should not divorce him? Paul said perhaps the wife might save the husband. Although, I assure you, I shall stay true to my gods.”
Gratia gazed at Maximus in surprise, that he had even read her scroll. “I thought my scroll had been moved from where I hid it. As for your beliefs, sir, I, and even Timon, believe your lares, not he, have kept you well and whole.” Whole. Gratia wished she had not said that; it made her think again about how handsome the general was, reclining upon his couch.
In embarassment she looked away, then forced her eyes back, to lock with his gaze. “General, do you win all of your battles so swiftly?”
Maximus swung his legs off the couch. He wrapped his arms about Gratia and enfolded her in an embrace. She rewarded his searching mouth with a passionate response, pressing her body fully against his, raising her arms to wrap her hands about his neck. He separated his lips from hers for only a moment.
“My lady. My love. You took me captive long ago.”
Gratia’s only response was to whimper and seek the pleasure of his mouth again, which Maximus gladly gave her. His lips traveled to the hollow of her neck, a spot he had longed to kiss since that first cena at which he’d seen her. He could feel her cradling his head, running her slender fingers through his hair, pressing his face further down her chest.
Suddenly the triclinium seemed to open, too filled with slaves. He knew they were too loyal to talk, but he had no desire to disclose his lady’s beauty to any eyes beyond his own. Maximus lifted her easily into his arms; she was but half again the weight of his sword. His heart swelled as she made a necklace of her arms about his neck, by her actions clearly willing him to continue.
His hands began to explore her body even as he lay her on his bed. The thin silk fabric of her tunica teased him with the promise of the rounded curves beneath. Made impatient by his arousal, Maximus began to nuzzle Gratia’s breasts while they were still encased under the delicate material. Wetted with his saliva, the tunica became translucent, enabling him to see the rosy flush of her nipples, their hardness echoing that of his fully-engorged member.
Smiling, he kissed her palms, which had reached out to touch the broad planes of his still-clothed chest. He pulled his clothing off, savoring the way she looked at him. As he was surely gazing at her. //Venus, you have built her body for love.// His military divinities, Mars and Mithras had no part in this.
He lifted her up at her shoulders to remove the tunica bunched around her neck; that could not be comfortable. He wanted her pleasure from this night at least to equal his.
There was a way to ensure that. Tracing his lips along Gratia’s curves, he nuzzled his way around her breasts, to her navel, and thence to the triangle of brown curls. Finding the bud hidden within, he caressed it, alternating fingers and tongue. Gratia’s gasps gave way to moans and cries of ecstasy and surprise as the bud began to pulse. Her response enchanted him. She had been a wife to two men; he was a soldier, not a skilled lover, so surely this was not a novel experience for her? Yet between her legs already issued a responsive wetness. He gently inserted one finger, then two within her; she writhed against them, spreading and arching her thighs in a pleading invitation to him.
At this, Maximus abandoned all thought, save his need to possess her completely. He slid into her, his groans mingling with hers in erotic abandon. He withdrew only to plunge into her further, harder, deeper, again and again, craving to join with her completely. As he cupped her bottom to increase his penetration, he was dimly aware of her small hands pressing against his buttocks, seeking the same goal. He covered her mouth with his own, his tongue’s thrusts rivaling those of his sex. She responded, exploring his mouth eagerly with thrusts of her own. The Spaniard lifted a creamy leg to his shoulder in order to increase his entry.
His self-control vanished as she squeezed him from within. Gratia’s core drank in his climax and throbbed in union with him.
Panting and drowsy from fulfilment, Maximus laved kisses about his new wife’s face. He would have rolled off, but Gratia locked her legs around his waist, greedy to maintain the sensation his body pressing into her, his maleness buried within her, for as long as she could.
tunic. — Let’s pause in the story for a moment and think about Maximus’s body. Ahhh….
tradition of usus — Actually, in parts of the US (Virginia, for example) this tradition still continued, in a variant form, until several decades ago. If a woman and man cohabited for a year, they were considered common-law married.
The morning light edged around the curtain of his bedchamber. Raising himself on an elbow, Maximus watched as Gratia awakened. She had no guile; the shift in her expressions was undisguised; from ‘where am I’ to ‘I thought I was dreaming’ to ‘I am here with you, and you are my lover.’
The glow in her dark brown eyes as they met his blue-green ones reminded him of a similar morning, years ago. //I love this woman. Yet Persephone, tell my Selene I still love her too. And my son.//
Gratia immediately suspected the cause of Maximus’s wistful reverie. She bit her lip. She was only an interloper; she knew it.
Seeing Gratia’s visage stain with despair, Maximus knew she had read his thoughts. He hastened to allay her.
“My treasure, you would not be here if my late wife’s lemur did not desire it.” Tenderness and sincerity shown in Maximus’s eyes as he embraced her again. Gratia loved him too much to quibble. Besides, she was having the queer sensation that perhaps those little figurines were….
“Why do you shake your head? Do you not believe me, my desire?”
“I do, Maximus.” She stroked his chest, enjoying the contrast of his soft skin with the hard muscles beneath. She rested her hand above his heart. “I just… never thought my prayers would be answered.”
The general smiled and placed his hand against her heart, cupping her left breast in the process. “Well then,” he teased, “you are worshipping the wrong gods.”
Gratia would have responded with a tease of her own, but the morning love play was interrupted by the strained voice of Invictus.
“It is the magistrate Valerius Tullius Caecus, Master. He claims it is urgent.”
Maximus hoisted his tunica over his head and strode out of the chamber. Gratia, worried by the tension in the slave’s voice, stood at the curtain.
“General.” The magistrate saluted; the ten lictors accompanying him did the same. “We have reason to believe you have a member of that illegal sect, the Christians, in your house. I have here a warrant for her arrest. The charge is maiestas — treason- for Christians refuse to make the proper sacrifices to Caesar.”
Gratia clapped a hand over her mouth to cover her cry.
The general made no such effort to cover his laugh. “You have disturbed me and my wife with this foolish story?”
“Sir, the one suspected is your wife.”
Maximus snorted. “Absurd. Why, only last evening, she told me she was certain my lares had protected me during the travels and ordeals of my life. What Christian would do that? Who is her accuser?”
“A Judean, but he is a citizen of Rome. Marcus Barnabas Alexander.”
“No wonder. He was her second husband. He divorced her, yet he is jealous of me.”
“He says he saw her at the catacombs early last year.”
“Indeed?” Maximus unconcernedly popped a grape into his mouth from the bowl proffered by a servant. “Have some; they’re from my farm; they’re very good. What was he doing there?”
“He was tracking some lost goods. He followed them into the tombs.”
The magistrate stepped back at the look of anger crossing the Spaniard’s face.
“Lost goods. I was the lost goods! He was part of a kidnapping and murder plot against me. It is he you should arrest.”
Involuntarily, the magistrate saluted at the command. The Spanish general was not one he wished to cross. “I shall do just that, Sir, when I leave here.”
“My lord, what is this?” The men turned, to see Gratia clothed in the delicate tunica she had worn during her intimate dinner. “I thought I heard the name of the pathetic excuse of a man who divorced me.”
Maximus wrapped his common-law wife gently in his arms. Gratia was grateful; she knew she had to defend herself, but she wasn’t sure she could control her hands from shaking.
//I do not think I deny you if I say this. // “It is only by the generosity of the lemur of my husband’s late wife that you see me here today. Why would you think I do not honor her?”
Maximus made a point of nuzzling Gratia’s ear. Such a public display of affection ran counter to his philosophy, but then, he and Gratia stood on a razor’s edge.
Conviction for treason would mean Gratia’s incarceration in the Ludus Magnus, never to escape. His wife would be entertainment for the people of Rome. She would be torn apart by the wild beasts during the opening act of the next gladiatorial games.
//I could never permit her to suffer such a fate. Were she found guilty, I would kill her myself– a swift, sharp blow of my sword – and take my own life. Then in Elysium, I would be in the company of the two women I hold most precious.//
The magistrate, watching the general, offered some intelligence. “You know, it is not just your wife Alexander has accused, General, but also Timon the physician and the lady Phoebe Crispina Macrima.”
“He is taking great risks. Timon is Caesar’s personal physician. The lady is from an illustrious patrician family.”
“Indeed. She has retained the noted lawyer Tertius Viridius Bubo to be her defender. One would have to stem from a patrician family to afford his services.”
Maximus kept his face a mask as he pondered this disclosure. Ridding his home of the magistrate was but one small step to protect his beloved. Of course there would be a trial, and like everything else in this infernal city, it would be influenced by politics and intrigue, of which he knew nothing and wished, until now, to know less.
“Shall we take one of the slaves into custody, Sir? Obtain his confession regarding the lady?”
Maximus glowered. “You mean, will you torture one of my slaves until he or she dies?”
“That is the law,” admitted the magistrate. “No slave may bear witness except under torture.”
“Then is it me you seek,” declaimed a tenor voice. Invictus.
“Oh, no,” pleaded Gratia to the young man.
“The lady is innocent,” continued the young man, holding out his wrists to be shackled. For all she has done for me, it shall be an honor to protect her.”
Gratia buried her face in her husband’s shoulder, unable to stop the tears.
“Is this necessary?” he asked, softly. “There will be a trial. He has been an excellent servant; a gift from the Augusta Lucilla.”
At the mention of that name, the magistrate retreated. The general was as well-connected as was rumored. “We shall take him only if the court requires his testimony. Vale-” He led his men in another salute, and they left the house.
lemur — Not a monkey, but a spirit, a ghost. Remember Ghost with Demi Moore and Patrick Swazye? Oh, was that ever romantic! (Ok, back to the plot…)
arrest — There were no police in ancient Rome.
Lucilla viewed the wax tablet held moment’s ago in the messenger’s hand. The horseman, exhausted, could barely stand. He had been ordered by his general to fly.
//Such loyalty Maximus engenders// marveled the Augusta. //I am only surprised the man did not grow wings at the Spaniard’s command.//
“Rest,” she directed. “You have done well. I will send my fleetest couriers back, I assure you.”
She motioned to her slave. Using the gold stylus handed to her, she pressed a quick note into the wax, then set the tablet back into its protective box.
“Fausta, assemble a month’s clothing for me. Early tomorrow, we travel to Rome.”
Gratia sat quietly as Maximus and the Lady Lucilla conversed. She was not disturbed by slave gossip that the general and the Augusta had been lovers. That was years ago, when her husband was a lieutenant and the Augusta merely Caesar’s daughter, not yet an empress in her own right. It was rather the fact of the lady’s presence, and Maximus’s easy demeanor around her, that held Gratia in awe.
The Augusta had certainly eyed her keenly, scrutinizing her form, her talk, her features sharply. Gratia doubted the lady considered Maximus’s selection worthy of him. With that assessment, Gratia had to agree.
Maximus had mounted his wife’s defense as swiftly and thoroughly as he would any campaign. In his note to Lucilla, he had requested her advice concerning a choice of legal defender. Kaeso Fabius Corvus, she had not hesitated to reply. With his jet-black hair and eyes, swarthy skin, and hooked nose he resembled the crow for which he’d been nicknamed.
Fabius was completely unconcerned with the truth. “Tell me nothing,” he waved at her upon their introduction. “The facts will merely mar the exceptional quality of my defense.” Instead, he quizzed her as to her background.
Her status as a member of the same tribe as the Judean’s King David, in fact, as a lineal descendant, impressed him not. The last thing we want, he rolled his eyes, is to remind our listeners you are a descendant of troublemakers. Besides, Rome had vanquished Judea long ago, during the reign of the Emperor Titus. The Temple had been destroyed and its treasures carted in triumph to Rome.
Now, her status as a member of a wealthy merchant family, that was of more use. But even allusions to her brother’s fleet of ships plying the Mediterranean between Massilia and Ostia were as nothing compared to the credentials of her military husband.
“Hero of Vindobona, slayer of the Alemanni, beloved of Marcus Aurelius, client of Caesar — you are his client, are you not, offering him praise and your respects? And he pays you patronage money in return?”
Maximus, making a face, nodded. He loathed Rome’s fawning system of client and patron, but Lucilla, Timon, and even Caesar himself, when he was still merely Septimus Severus, had commended it to him. He had grudgingly complied. Now, with Gratia in mortal peril, he was glad that he did.
He complied with the Augusta’s and his lawyer’s recommendations, too, that he visit each of his friends, near-friends, would-be friends, and backbiters willing to put in a good word provided their asses were licked.
The lawyer silenced the Spaniard’s protests against politicking. “Do not confuse legal proceedings with a search for justice. This is what you must do to win. Would you tie your left arm behind your back in battle because your enemy’s was wounded?”
So Maximus left the house at dawn to be litter-born through Rome’s streets, seeking supporters of his cause. On the day of the trial, they needed to attend the Forum and loudly declare their belief in Gratia’s innocence.
As a result, Gratia was alone most of the day, left with herself and her worries. Lucilla no longer visited; she only needed to see the barbarian woman once to form an opinion and did not desire a further acquaintance. She would have much preferred Maximus to have joined her in Capri. She thought herself most generous to offer such help as might enable the most desirable man in the Empire to safeguard his dull little wife.
Of course Maximus had burnt Gratia’s scroll, so she did not even have the comfort of that; only the guilt. //I am a coward// she thought, every time she saw Invictus. The fact that neither Timon nor Phoebe were confessing and joining their co-religionists in the bloody sand of the area did not make her feel less ashamed.
At night, Maximus sought to console her. Gratia turned away until her new husband’s caresses drove all rational thought from her mind and replaced it with lust.
“Would you do, as I have done?” she asked afterwards once, in the dark, nestled against his chest.
“Beloved, I should not have joined this sect, so it is not a question requiring an answer.”
“But do you not fight for what you believe it? Did you not go into battle knowing you might die?”
“Yes, but … But I have seen one wife murdered. I cannot endure another. Selene will welcome us in Elysium; I am sure you will be good friends. You do not, however, need to meet her for years and years.”
Maximus watched his wife anxiously, grateful for the Jews’ and the Christians’ abhorrence of suicide. Some days, her guilt seemed to overwhelm her and make her physically ill. On those days, she would eat only the simplest food, as punishment, he supposed. On other days, she seemed to seek out the iced peach concoction as a comfort.
Gratia had never attended the Forum before the day of her trial. She stared at the awaiting crowd, a mixture of senators, army men, and the curious public. She was relieved to see Gracchus, one of the senators who owed their lives to her husband, seated among the jury panel.
Maximus stared too. Caesar assumed the position of the judge, sitting on a purple-bedecked chair. Maximus prayed the military fraternity would hold, that Severus would recall the Spaniard’s willing relinquishment of his troops to the fellow general.
“Did you know of the Emperor’s interest in this matter?” Fabius would have appeared unconcerned to any observer.
“No.” Maximus labored to restrain his face into the same nonchalant attitude as the advocate’s.
“Permit me,” interrupted the familiar feminine voice. Fabius bowed low. “Augusta.”
“I had words with Quintus, shortly after my arrival,” she murmured, so low that Gratia, a head shorter than the empress, could not hear what she whispered into the two men’s ears.
Fabius frowned at the information, but Maximus smiled.
“Let us hope for that,” he said in satisfaction.
The lawyers apparently thought themselves paid by the word. Though she knew her life was at stake, Gratia found herself lightheaded, unable to concentrate, so airless did the crowded Forum seem.
Back and forth the advocates went, in argument and counter-argument and points of order, parrying and jousting with each other and the catcalls of the crowd, responding to the close questioning of the Emperor himself.
“denying Caesar his rightful worship…”
“…steadfast loyalty to Caesar…”
” a depraved, excessive superstition, a foolish set of beliefs…”
“…no plot to overthrow the rightful head of the Empire.”
Gratia turned her gaze from her lawyer’s oration to her husband’s chair. It was empty. There he was, in a knot of people, chatting happily, the Lady Lucilla by his side, her arm linked through his.
Her arm linked through his. Gratia blinked. Her eyes had been truthful. She stood, meaning to walk over to the pair, not sure what she would say or do when she reached them.
Instead, she fainted.
A cold, wet compress on her forehead, Gratia tried to sit up as her toga-clad husband opened the curtains to her litter. Her maid unnecessarily held her back; Gratia closed her eyes and returned to her supine position. The ground had started to sway again.
Gratia heard the slave slide out of the litter; she felt the weight of her husband’s body close to her own.
“Why are you weeping, my love? If I had known you would time your fainting so expertly, I could have saved the cost of the advocate.” He kissed her mouth softly. Gratia could feel his breath; he was returning for a lengthier encounter. She rolled over, foiling him.
“Beloved, I was only teasing. If it took all I owned and my freedom besides to save you, I would have done so.”
It was very uncomfortable, but Gratia stayed on her stomach.
“You are to suffer exile.” When Maximus said this, it did not sound like a punishment.
Gratia was furious; she’d been condemned to leave Rome, and the man was giggling!
“I suppose you shall now journey to Neapolis.” She chose the most formal construction of the sentence in Latin, trying to make her words as cold as their sound.
There was a pause. “Caesar trusts me enough to permit me to return to Trujillo. But, my wife, if you wish Neapolis instead, I shall ask the Lady Lucilla-“
“There is nothing you need to ask her, Sir, that she has not already offered.”
Maximus stared at his wife’s back, puzzled. Lucilla had offered the name of a reliable ship captain for the voyage to Hispania, nothing more.
Why was Gratia so suspicious? She knew of his brief affair with the Augusta when they were young. There had been nothing since, though Lucilla had wanted… Oh. Had one of his slaves reported to Gratia what the Augusta said when she called him to her house the week? Or perhaps a slave told Gratia what the Augusta was not wearing at the time? If the slaves had informed his wife that Lucilla tried to seduce him, then they should be reprimanded, for clearly they had not reported his polite but emphatic ‘no.’
“Beloved, my family’s farm is in Trujillo, in Lusitania. Before the trial, I learned from Quintus, through Lucilla, that Caesar had already made up his mind regarding the sentence. He remembered my conversation with him about my home in Trujillo. Exile to Hispania is not punishment but a gift. Tusculum would have been a good escape from Rome, but this shall be so much better, so far away from all this Roman intrigue, from politicians…” He kissed her ear. “So far away from Lucilla.”
Gratia rolled back over. She couldn’t bear another moment lying on her abdomen, anyway.
“I saw her arm entwined with yours, in the Forum.” Her eyes flashed.
Hmm. So her suspicions were not yet allayed.
Maximus had seen Suevi women wrestling when he was once entertained by a tribal chieftan friendly to Rome. He imagined Gratia and Lucilla in such a duel. Lucilla would not stand a chance. He could imagine the smaller, slighter Gratia happily breaking the Augusta’s nose with her first move. It was just as well they were to be exiled to Hispania.
Affectionately, he mussed his wife’s hair, already loosened from its braid.
“On my honor as a general, as soon as she took my arm, I removed it.” Maximus placed Gratia’s hand to his mouth, kissing her palm, her fingers, her wrist. “Lucilla owed me much; by acting as a go-between with the Emperor and certain key members of your jury, she repaid that debt. She may think I am now obligated to her, but that is her way; I do not. Surely that is not why you fainted.”
It was not, but Gratia replied. “Yes.”
“I always hoped… I prayed you would care so.” The Spaniard was overcome. He kicked off his sandals and unfurled the voluminous fabric of his toga. The litterbearers would simply have to endure his weight on the trip back to his home.
Then with his body he proceeded to show Gratia, to her great delight and his, how he felt.
It was towards the end of the long voyage across the Mediterranean that Maximus realized the truth.
“Timon.” The physician’s gaze left the dolphins traveling in the wave cut by the bow of the ship. He had also been sentenced to exile. Maximus, ever practical, thanks to two decades of military service, offered the physician a bed in his home. One never knew when the services of a medicus, and a good one at that, would be required.
“How long has my wife been pregnant?”
The physician smiled. “Do not accuse me, General. You grew up on a farm, you understand how these events come to be.”
“I cannot remember when she had her last monthly course.”
“Her belly, then, has it started to swell?”
Maximus thought back to this morning’s love play. Gratia had insisted on mounting him. Indeed, he had not ridden her since before the trial. He recalled her flushed appearance as she came.
“I can tell by your grin that her breasts have enlarged.”
The general returned a satisfied wink. “There is a curve beneath her navel, too. Why has she not told me?”
“She is afraid.” Timon became solemn. “This is only the second time since she became a woman that her womb has opened. She fears for your child, Maximus.”
“Then what can I do?” Maximus began to pace.
Timon read his mind. “Campaigns were easier, eh? You could garner supplies, train your men, spy upon the enemy…”
Maximus barely heard him. “There was an old woman, in Trujillo; she had great skill. Women who bled, infants in breech positions… she never lost a one. I hope she still lives. I pray…. Excuse me, Timon.”
He descended into the ship’s hold. Retrieving his lares, a flint and some incense, he confronted a female slave.
“Where is your lady?”
“Above decks, Master. Towards the …back of the ship, by the wheel?”
Seated at the stern upon a low chair, Gratia started to brush away her servant who was stroking her feet.
“Stay seated, beloved.” He struck the flint and lit the incense. “Breathe in the smoke, while I say the prayers,” he demanded, then changed his mind. “Unless the smoke makes you queasy.”
Before Gratia could wonder at his statement, Maximus continued, addressing his household gods. “Ancestors, protect us on the remainder of our journey home; my wife, myself, and our unborn child.”
“Maximus, I –“
“Do not interrupt the prayers.” He pretended to growl.
“If you should see a strange god who has nail marks in his hands, ask him and his virgin mother to bless us too.”
Gratia could not restrain her laugh. “Now you’ve done it. You’ve been sacrilegious to someone; I’m not sure whom.”
Years ago, Maximus had walked down this lane, running his hands over the golden stalks of wheat. He did so again.
Years ago, his wife, standing by a doorway of the stucco farmhouse, had smiled at him, watching him striding towards her.
“I love you.” He could read this one’s lips, too.
And years ago, he and his wife had also watched a study toddler chasing the ducks in the sand by the kitchen garden.
It was another child, and another wife. He would see them, one day, in Elysium. But not for a long time, he prayed. For now he was finally home.
With this wife. And this child.