Character: Maximus Decimus Meridius “Gladiator”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction based on the characters established and defined in the movie and book titled Gladiator It is strictly for entertainment purposes. Please do not copy, publish or alter this work in any way without the written permission of the author.
The wheat fields surrounding him with their sweet smell, Maximus began to walk, slowly at first and then with more decision, toward the small shapes he could see standing on the roadway which led to his Spanish villa. One of the figures was now running in his direction, and the General smiled: after so many years and indescribable sufferings, he was finally going home.
Maximus reached the gravel covered lane and stopped, bracing himself as his little boy, his Marcus, jumped on him, his small arms locking around his neck. “Papà!” he called with joy.
Maximus hugged the child and pressed his body to his chest, his heart almost bursting with joy. Then, still carrying the boy in his arms, he continued to walk along the road until he reached the woman awaiting them.
“My wife,” the Spaniard began, his voice breaking with emotion, caressing her smiling features with his eyes, “My beloved Selene.”
“My husband, I am so happy to see you again.” the dark-haired, dark-eyed woman said, she too clearly moved by their encounter.
Maximus reached out a hand, and she took it, letting him drag her near his body. The small family embraced for several minutes, and the General lost himself in the scent and the warmth of his son’s and wife’s bodies. In the end he put down Marcus and took his hand, while slipping his other arm around Selene’s waist. “Let’s go home,” he whispered, pointing to the pink-stoned villa waiting for them on a little hilltop.
As they walked the General added, “It is so good to be here again.”
“Yes, your visit is really a dream come true,” Selene commented.
“Visit?” Maximus stopped at once, “What do you mean? I am here to stay!”
The woman shook her head, “Unfortunately no, my love. The Gods have other plans for you.”
“Other plans? Do you mean I do not deserve to stay here in Elysium with you? That I did something wrong?” Maximus was almost shouting, his heart gripped by fear.
“Shhh, Maximus. The Gods don’t want to punish you, but they have made you different from the other men.”
“Different? How different?”
Selene looked at their home, “Let’s go inside, I will explain then.”
“No, I want to hear it now!” Maximus crossed his arms on his chest, feeling anger mount inside him and not liking it a bit.
Selene sighed and said plainly, “You are their chosen one, Maximus. You are immortal.”
“WHAT!?!?” The General wanted to laugh aloud but he had too much respect for his wife to behave in such an impolite way. “What are you saying? We are in Elysium, aren’t we?”
“Yes, we are.”
“Which means we are all dead.”
“Yes and no.”
“What kind of answer is this?” Maximus rubbed his beard, trying to stay calm and not scare Marcus, who was not used to seeing him enraged.
Selene stared into his eyes and explained, “You ARE dead, Maximus, but only for a short time. Your violent death in the Colosseum triggered your immortality and soon you will wake up as though you had been asleep, your body once more whole, the wound which killed you healed.”
“But…but this impossible!” Maximus protested.
“No, it is true and inside yourself you know it.”
The General nodded unwillingly. He did not want to admit it, but he was no longer fighting the idea.
However he did not like it.
“Tell me why? Tell me why I can’t stay here with you and Marcus? What point is there to return to life if everyone I lived for is dead?”
Selene walked near him and, cupping his sad face in her hands, she looked deeply in his eyes — which were brimming with unshed tears — and whispered, “Why does the sun rise and set? Why do the rivers always run to the sea? Why does the thunder always follow the lighting? Because Nature and the Gods made them so. It is the same for you. I don’t know why they choose you, but I know they want you to be their protector…”
“Their protector? And who I should protect? I, who was not even able to keep you and Marcus safe?” Maximus’ voice was full of pain, and a little bit sarcastic.
“I can’t tell you because I don’t know the answer. I only know you can’t stay here. Soon your body will be healed and you will wake up and go away from here. But first you must know something…. The Gods commanded me to tell you are not totally invincible: if your head is removed from your neck you will die once for all. The Gods made you thus so you won’t be too careless with your life during combats. But your body will heal from any other kind of wounds. You will ‘die’ for a brief time and then wake up as you did this time.”
She had barely finished speaking when Maximus felt his head spin and he staggered on his feet. Selene’s hands helped him to stay upright. “What is happening?” he asked, touching his forehead.
“You are waking up. Your time here is almost finished.”
“No….It is too soon! I want to stay here a little longer.” the General protested, “I want to play with Marcus…..I want to love you….”
“That’s not possible, my love. You must go back!”
“Yes, papà, you must return,” added Marcus who had been silent till that moment.
“Then I will cut my head at the first possible occasion!” the Spaniard retorted.
Selene smiled sadly, “You won’t do such a thing, and we both know it. You will learn how to use yourgift….”
“My gift? It is a curse, not a gift!” Maximus staggered again, barely avoiding falling to the ground.
“You must go!” his wife said urgently, “But don’t worry, when the Gods will decide your task is ended, you will fall in a deep sleep to never wake up again…..And we will be here to meet you again, ready to stay together for eternity.”
“Do you promise it?” Maximus’ voice was weak, as he was loosing consciousness with each passing second. “Do you?”
“Yes, I promise it. Now go.” Selene’s face was streaked with tears as she hugged her husband for a last time, kissing his eyelids as he closed his eyes.
Maximus abandoned himself in her embrace as he felt his head spin again. Then there was a sensation of falling through space and time….. and then all was black.
1 – 181AD
Maximus opened his eyes and looked around him. It took him some moments to focus his vision but when he did, he found himself in a small room with bare stone walls and a little window through which entered only a shaft of pale light. There was also a closed door which Maximus could clearly see from the high bench where he was lying, a sheet covering his body. But it was not for keeping him warm, he realized with a start. It was to protect a corpse until the moment of the funeral arrived. The General shivered as the memories of his fight with Commodus and of the brief time with his family assaulted him. Was it really possible that he was immortal? Or was it only the dream of a fevered mind? However, he was feeling neither sick nor weak as he had during the match with the emperor…. With a determined move, he pushed away the sheet and became aware he was totally naked and clean. Someone had washed off him the blood, the sweat and dirt of the arena…. preparing him for his burial, he surmised with another shiver. Maximus sat up and gingerly touched the spot on his back where he knew Commodus’ dagger had penetrated his flesh but his fingers found no wound, only a small portion of ridged and sensitive tissue which he recognized as a newly formed scar.
The Spaniard’s hand fell at his side as he wondered what he had to do now. As incredible as it was, his mind had already accepted the fact he was immortal, but he was still too confused — shocked — to rationalize it, and he doubted he could do it in Rome, especially if someone saw him alive. He had to go away from the city and find a quiet place where he will be able to think.
His decision made, Maximus jumped down from the stone bench and looked around him once more. In a corner of the room he saw a small basin with a linen towel folded near it. The General took the cloth and wrapped it around his hips, covering his lower regions as best as he could, and then took the sheet and arranged it on his shoulders. After that he walked to the door and pushed: it opened easily and without a sound, and he stepped out in a long torch-lit corridor. Walking quickly, his bare feet moving with no sound on the pavement, Maximus tried to determin where he was. The smell of blood, sweat and wild beasts which lingered in the air made him believe he was still somewhere in the Colosseum bowels. What he had to do now was to find his way out.
Led by his instinct and by the air which was becoming cleaner, Maximus rose up various floors of the giant building until he stepped out of it. However, to his great displeasure, he found himself inside the arena sand ring instead of the outside of the amphitheater. Cursing under his breath, Maximus started to return inside when he saw a figure crouched on the sand near the imperial box. Despite himself, he felt curiosity rise inside him and so he stretched his neck to watch better what was going on.
The General’s eyes widened as he recognized the kneeling man as Juba. What was he doing there? And more importantly, could he risk revealing himself to his former comrade in arms? Juba was his friend, he knew it, but only the Gods could predict how he would react to seeing him alive. In the end, Maximus decided to take his chances and stepped out in the sand.
Juba finished patting the sand back over Maximus’ wife and son figurines and stood up. He had buried them in the exact spot were his friend had collapsed and died, hoping that his blood, which still coated the sand, would mingle with the wood of the little statuettes, helping Maximus’ soul to find his dear one’s more easily.
The Numidian sighed and after a last thought for the Spaniard, he turned on his heels, ready to leave this place of death and pain for the last time. He had made only few steps when, in the light of the new day, he saw a man walk in his direction. As the distance between them shrank, Juba recognized his friend’s features. His DEAD friend’s features. A shiver ran along his back. Was it possible? Was he real? Or was it only a ghost? The former gladiator pushed the last thought out of his mind, ghosts did not leave foot prints in the sand.
Finally the Spaniard arrived in front of him and offered a slight smile.
“Maximus,” the Numidian said, as he studied his friend closely, “I see we were too hurried to call you dead.”
“Yes,” the General replied, grinning.
“I suppose you now want to leave this place as fast as you can…”
“Right, I want to leave Rome, this is no place for me.”
Juba nodded, “I understand it. I am leaving too….I am going home. Would you like to come with me? In Numidia you will find the peace you are looking for.”
Maximus quirked an eyebrow, surprised, and then nodded, acknowledging Juba’s intuition. “I am an open book for you, eh?”
The Numidian smiled, “Yes. Now let’s go, we must leave this place before someone realizes you disappeared. And we also must find a pair of sandals for you, you can’t walk among the crowd bare-foot.”
“Not to mention I need to find a tunic.” Maximus removed his sheet, showing Juba he was naked under it, except for his make-shift loincloth.
“Yes, I see we really need to dress you, but we should not have problems with the money that was given to us.” Juba caught Maximus’ curious stare, “It turned out Proximo named us, his gladiators, as heirs and my part was given to me last evening. It is a considerable sum and some of it is yours…. but we can talk of it later.”
Juba quickly bent down and retrieved the statuettes he had just buried, brushing away the sand and handing them to Maximus who grabbed them in his fist, a grateful look on his face.
“Let’s go,” the Nubidian said again and the General nodded, following his friend out of the mighty arena to begin a new life…. even if Juba did not yet know how ‘new’ it would be for the Spaniard.
2 – 185AD
“Dinner is ready!” Aisha called, moving a steaming pot from the oven to the table. The noise of running feet was heard in all the house as two lovely girls arrived in the room, followed by their father.
“Go call Maximus,” said Aisha to her husband, and Juba nodded, knowing where he had to look to find his friend.
He went on the top of his house where, on the flat roof, the Spaniard was standing, his gaze fixed on the horizon and the slowly descending sun.
“Maximus, dinner is ready.” he said.
“Begin without me, I am not hungry.” His friend’s voice was soft, barely audible.
“Lately you are never hungry,” commented Juba, and the other man turned to look at him, “You must do something for it.”
“About the fact I am not hungry?”
“No, and you know to what I am referring. It is time for you to move on, to discover why the Gods made you what you are.”
Maximus did not reply but turned to look away, and Juba sighed, wondering for the umpteenth time if his friend would ever find again a purpose in his life…especially considering his immortality. The concept of Maximus being so different from him did not bother the Numidian, because he did not envy him. In the beginning when Maximus had told him about it, he had thought his friend had been hit on the head one too many times. True, he had survived and healed quickly from a very serious wound but to be immortal…. And then, two years before there had been the incident with a lion, the incident that had opened Juba’s eyes. The beast had attacked the two men while they were hunting, and Maximus had been mortally wounded while saving Juba’s life. While his life slipped away with the blood flowing from his severed femoral artery, Maximus had kept telling Juba that everything was going to be all right, that he would not die. But he had, and after closing his unseeing eyes with his fingers, Juba had unleashed his anguish and rage by digging his friend’s grave, only to scream with terror when Maximus had risen from the ground and asked him if he could help in some way. The sight of his healed thigh had convinced Juba of his friend’s special nature.
“What I should do?” Maximus’ voice recalled the Numidian to the present.
“I don’t know, precisely, but you can’t stay here moping all the time. As much as I’d like to have you here with me and my family, I feel this is not the place where are you destined to stay.”
“Are you throwing me out?” Maximus tried to lighten the atmosphere.
“No,” replied Juba, not minding the joke, “I am only telling you need to find a reason to go on with life.” He sighed then added, “Now I go down to eat because I AM hungry. I will leave something for you in case you change your mind.”
Maximus smiled slightly, “Thank you,” he murmured. And he was not referring only to Juba leaving him food.
Maximus watched Juba’s retreating back and sighed. His friend was right, it really was time for him to move on. He had spent the last four years wondering about his nature, trying to decide if his immortality was a blessing or a curse, without reaching a solution. Maybe if he were able to discover why the Gods had chosen him and what Selene meant when had called him ‘their protector’, he would be able to find a reason to really live again and not to merely exist. He knew by now he was not able to end his own life because everything in him rebelled to such idea and since he could not return in Elysium and his family, it was better for him to end this phase of ‘limbo’ and move forward. He could begin with a travel, to see if other beings like him existed somewhere…. Money was not a problem; his trading activities in the past four years had been very lucrative….
His decision finally taken, Maximus felt a sense of purpose wash over him. It was such a pleasurable feeling which had been lacking from his life for so long that a laughter escaped him. Then he turned and went down in the house, wanting to inform Juba about his plans and also feeling suddenly famished.
3 – 201AD
Maximus could barely believe it. Twenty years had passed since the day he had seen Rome for the last time. Since the day he had collapsed and died in the sand of the Colosseum.
But he had not truly died that day. Instead he had been born to an entirely new life of which he still did not understand the meaning but which he was determined to live as its fullest.
The Spaniard had not planned to ever return in Rome but something inside him kept pushing him in its direction, a nagging feeling as if he still had an unfinished business in the Urbe. He did not really know what it was but he was determined to discover it and put an end to the part of his life which was connected to the city.
The former general of Marcus Aurelius’ army absently stroked his chin as he scanned the forum and the roads departing from it, wondering about what to do next, and frowned at the strange sensation of his hand touching his smooth, shaven skin. Maximus was so unaccustomed to being without his beard that he felt almost naked. However he had thought better to slightly change his appearance for the time of his stay in Rome. He did not how many of the people who had meet him in the past were still alive, and he wanted to avoid embarrassing and not easily explainable encounters. He knew that without his beard he looked very young, so young he could pass for his son…. if Marcus were still alive he would have been twenty nine now, the same age Maximus seemed to be. And in fact he had adopted Marcus’ identity since he had settled down in Gaul, three years before.
The Spaniard pushed the thought of his dead son away and concentrated on the present. The first thing he had to do was to find a good inn where he could eat and rest from his long journey, before beginning his tour of the city to discover why his instinct had brought him back. Thus Maximus picked up his traveling bags and walked to one of the roads, the smell of good food indicating that the caupona he was looking for might be nearer than he hoped.
In the next few days Maximus spent much of his time touring the city, trying to familiarize himself with its lay out, learning which were the residential areas of the nobility and the riches and which were the zones where was better not to set foot in alone. He was amazed by the beauty of the temples, the basilicas and the monuments commemorating this or that emperor, and he spent a lot of time contemplating Marcus Aurelius’ statue on the Capitole hill. He even ventured near the Colosseum, admiring its magnificence, utterly saddened that such beautiful building was still used for the gladiatorial games. The rest of his time was spent in the forum, the pulsating heart of the city where the businesses were closed, the legal trials judged and the political situation discussed.
Maximus was very interested on the political aspects of the Empire: having spent the last sixteen years traveling across the known world, from the wild lands of the Scoti to the wonderful civilizations in Asia, he could attest the condition of the various provinces, but he knew nothing about the city he had once called ‘the light in brutal, dark and cruel world’. The former general was aware that the attempt to restore the republic after Commodus’ death had failed miserably and that, after a rapid succession of inept emperors, Lucius Septium Severus had seized the power and was now ruling from the palace on the Palatine hill. Maximus had been surprised to hear that Severus was now emperor, because the man — a provincial who came from Africa — did not seem suited to the political scheming and squabbling his position implied. The Spaniard shook his head and wondered how the hot-headed officer he had know while serving in Moesia was now able to stay calm during the endless Senate meetings, or how he was able to control the Praetorians, which had had such influence in the rise and fall of the Caesars preceding him.
“I wonder if Quintus is still alive,” thought Maximus one morning, as he saw a group of imperial guards march across the market area, the but he could not continue to ponder the matter further because a man pushing a wheelbarrow shouted, “Move aside!”
The former general became suddenly aware that lost in his musing he was blocking the access to a small vicus and so he hurried to free it. It was then he caught a flash of iron and, drilled by many years spent in the forest where a glimpse of metal often signaled the presence of an enemy, he squinted his eyes against the morning sun to gave a better look. What he saw made him frown. The flash had come from a dagger, a very beautiful blade with a finely decorated hilt which Maximus’ expert eyes reputed to be very expensive. However the man who was carrying it tied to his belt and partially covered by his dress, looked like a beggar, his tunica dirty and too short for him, his sandals barely tied with broken laces. The contrast among the value of the dagger and the look of its owner aroused the Spaniard’s perplexity. Carrying weapons was not forbidden — he too carried a daga under his toga — but how was it possible that a man in such poor conditions could own such a beautiful one? It would have had more sense for the owner to sell it and buy himself food and a new dress with the money instead of keeping it. Maximus’ instinct found it very strange and thought about two possible explanations, neither of them of his liking: the man was a thief and the dagger had been stolen to someone else or, and it was much more sinister, the beggar was not what he tried to appear. Feeling like a hunter on the tracks of his prey, the Spaniard began to follow the man as he moved across the market, noticing the cautious way he kept on looking around him, as if he was afraid someone might pursue him. This behavior increased Maximus’ conviction the ‘beggar’ was plotting something illegal and reinforced his determination to not let him escape from his view.
The pursuit was long and strenuous because the man was very careful in his movements, but Maximus was able to remain unnoticed, following him across the market area and then up to a clivius, which clearly led to a residential part of the city, or at least so it seemed by the beautiful villas they were passing.
Finally the ‘beggar’ turned a corner and disappeared from Maximus’ sight. The Spaniard flattened himself against the wall and slowly peeked around it, sighing with relief when he saw he had not lost the man: he was standing at the end of a long line of poor-looking persons awaiting near the open gates of a domus.
Maximus watched the scene with a bit of fascination. As a Roman, he knew about the custom of the salutatio, when the clientes lined up in front of the villa of their patronus to salute him and receive from him the sportula, a daily ration of food which, for many of them, was the only means of sustenance, but he had never performed it because in the Spanish countryside where he had been raised, the custom was not so common, and the same was for the Gallic village where he lived now.
Maximus pushed the thought aside and concentrated once more on the man he was studying. He was still standing in line with others, but he did not look as a man waiting for food. Not only he did not seem hungry like many of the others, but he was very nervous, his hand resting on the hilt of his hidden dagger.
The former general decided to stay in his place and wait to see if something more happened; from his position he had a good view of the road and the villa gates.
After about ten minutes a murmur rose among the waiting men as a group of servants all dressed in the same way stepped out the domus into the road and began to distribute little baskets to the assembled crowd. Many of the persons took the sportula and then went away but some of them remained in their places, the man with the dagger among them. They seemed to wait for something more… or for someone.
Maximus’ instincts were proved right once more: a few minutes later, received by a chorus of ‘thank you’ and ‘domine‘, a young man carrying the purple-striped white toga of a senator stepped in the road, stopping to speak with his remaining clientes. The man was tall, with light brown hair, and looked very thin and pale, not at all the portrait of perfect health. Maximus watched him move along the line, squeezing hands and exchanging words with his clientes, and then turned to control the man with the dagger. Thus he saw that the ‘beggar’ had put down his basket and was standing with his left arm stretched out, as if he wanted to invite the young man near him, while his right hand was grabbing the hilt of his dagger.
“He is getting ready to grab the senator and stab him…” As soon as the thought formed in his mind, Maximus left his hiding place and ran the group, just when the young man was about to take the killer’s hand…
“Watch out!” the Spaniard shouted, “He is armed!”
At the sound of his voice, both the beggar and the senator started and the former tried to hit his target… but Maximus was already on him, blocking his arm before he could strike. They then began to fight for the possession of the dagger, and the Spaniard resolved the question by twisting the assassin’s arm behind his back. “Drop the blade,” he hissed in his ear, “or I will break your bones.” The beggar tried to struggle but a sharp tug to his arm made him sink to the ground, crying out in pain.
At that precise moment, a group of men, clearly servants of the intended victim, surrounded them and helped Maximus tie his prisoner’s hands. Then they moved away, leaving room for their master.
The young man stretched out his arm and said, “I have no words to thank you, sir.”
“No thanks are needed,” replied Maximus squeezing the hand offered to him as he studied its owner closely, his first impression being confirmed: the young man was very tall, maybe even taller that him, but he was much too thin for his height and his refined features were strained by illness. As he looked at his face Maximus felt a glimmer of strange familiarity but he was not able to elaborate the thought more as the senator’s voice drew his attention.
“You are bleeding!”
The general looked down and saw he had a long wound on his right forearm, certainly caused by the beggar as they were fighting for the dagger. He examined it briefly and commented, “It is nothing. It is long but it is not very deep.”
“You must come inside my house so it will be properly tended,” said the young man.
“It is not necessary, really.”
“I insist, it is the least I can do for you.”
Maximus saw the determination on the other’s face and understood he was not going to relent. “All right, I will accept your gracious invitation.”
“Good!” the young man smiled and once more the Spaniard felt a sense of familiarity rise inside him.
The dominus led Maximus inside the villa, and the Spaniard gasped as, having passed the hall and the atrium, they arrived in the beautiful perystilium. Never before in his life he had seen such beautiful statues and frescoes and the fountain in the center of the wide courtyard was elegant and impressive at the same time.
His host took him to a small triclinium which opened on the porch and motioned him to sit down. Then he clapped his hands. “Bring me a bowl of warm water, a healing salve and some lined strips,” the young senator commanded to the slave that immediately arrived at his summon.
Maximus waited for the servant to go away and then said, “You are too kind, I…”
The dominus raised his hand in a gesture which looked graceful and regal and stopped his words, “Please, don’t add anything else. You deserve it. You saved my life, and this is the least I can do for you.”
Maximus noticed the calm with which young man seemed to accept the fact someone wanted to kill him and that aroused his curiosity.
“Forgive me if I am too meddlesome, but you don’t seem surprised that someone attempted to your life.”
The senator smiled bitterly, “Unfortunately, I am not. I knew something like that could happen.”
The master of the house saw the perplexed stare of his guest and smiled again, “It is a long story. I will explain later…” he stopped suddenly becoming aware he and his savior had not yet introduced, “Forgive my bad manners, I realize now I have yet to ask your name. As for me, I am..”
“LUCIUS!” A woman’s voice cried and both the men turned to see a figure running across the courtyard. Maximus felt the blood leave his face as he recognized the lady. The hair visible under her stola was now streaked with grey, her beautiful eyes and mouth lined by time and worries, and her body was fuller than he remembered it to be, but there was not doubt about who she was. Lucilla.
“Mother!” said the young man, raising quickly from his chair to embrace her, and Maximus finally understood why he had looked so familiar: he was Lucius Verus, Lucilla’s son, the boy he had befriended twenty years before.
“What do I do now?” thought the former general. He was not ready for such an encounter but there was no way for him to avoid it.
Annia Lucilla stepped inside the triclinium with her heart full of worry. The news of the attempt on Lucius’ life had reached her while he was walking in the garden and even if she had been informed her son was fine because a man had protected him, she had felt the need to ascertain in person that it was true. Lucius’ health was so delicate she could not help but be worried for him.
Marcus Aurelius’ daughter saw her son come to her, and they hugged tightly.
“Don’t worry mother, I am all right.” Lucius whispered in her hair and, reassured he was truly fine, her gaze moved to rest on the stranger standing near the table. She looked at his face and gasped with shock. The man in front of her was Maximus Decimus Meridas! Lucilla blinked her eyes, thinking she was hallucinating, but when she opened it again, he was still there.
Moving as a sleep walker, Lucilla freed herself from her son’s arms and walked to the man, studying his face closely, realizing in a flash he could not be Maximus, as much as she would have wished him to be. The Spaniard had died in the Colosseum twenty years before…But this young man, who seemed to be in his late twenties, was so much like her dead lover! Too much like him to be only a casual likeness…the only difference among them seeming to be the fact he had no beard while all the rest — the blue-green eyes, the straight nose, the broad shoulders — was exactly the same. Lucilla knew her memories might have been blurred by time but still…
“Who are you?” she finally asked with a trembling voice, blind to Lucius’ perplexed gaze.
Maximus stayed silent for several seconds and then, hoping Lucilla would not recognize his lie or read in his eyes he knew who she was, he said, “My name is Marcus Decimus Meridas.” He purposely stressed his Gallic accent to distract her from the timbre of his voice.
Lucilla and Lucius gasped with amazement as he stared at them with the perplexed look of someone who did not know why they were reacting in such way.
“You…you are General Maximus’ son?” Lucius hesitantly asked – finally realizing why his savior had seemed familiar to him – while his mother kept staring at him.
“Yes….” Maximus said, putting surprise in his tone, “Did you… did you know him?” He hated to lie but it was necessary.
“But how is it possible…the General’s family had been destroyed per my uncle’s orders…”
“Yes… Oh, forgive me, I see I have yet to tell you my name. I am Lucius Verus and this is my mother, Annia Lucilla Vera. Emperor Commodus was my uncle.”
Maximus feigned surprise at the news and then bowed deeply, “I am honored to meet you.”
“How did you survive?” Lucilla finally managed to ask.
“I… escaped. My mother saw the Praetorians arrive to our farm and told me to run away…. She must have sensed something was wrong..” Maximus’ voice died, and he closed his eyes as he wished desperately the things had really happened that way.
Lucilla’s heart constricted at his obvious pain, and warm tears began to streak her face. “You are really his son….” she whispered, “Thank the Gods you are still alive…” And before Maximus could react she pressed her body against his chest and began to cry. The Spaniard felt a lump in his throat at her desperate show of emotion and awkwardly raised his arms, gently embracing her, silently asking her forgiveness for his lies.
The rest of the day was spent in remembrance.
Maximus told Lucilla and Lucius the story he had prepared in the eventuality someone might recognize him. He told them how he had survived the Preatorians, escaping in the chestnut trees forest near his farm; how some family friends had found him shocked and starved and taken him with them and how he had traveled with them in Gaul, where now he lived farming and breeding horses. The last bit of information was true, because Maximus had acquired some lands near Aquae- Sextiae three years before.
“Why are you in Rome?” Lucius asked him, still a bit in awe to meet the son of the gladiator headmired so much as a young boy, the man who had saved his life, his mother’s and Rome from his crazy uncle’s hands.
“Well, this crop of wheat had been especially good and so I used the money to come here to visit the city. I have heard so much things about the beauty of Rome and I wanted to see it with my eyes.”
“Is it up to your expectations?” Lucilla inquired, never growing tired to hear that deep, silky voice which was so much like Maximus’.
“Yes, it is. The Urbe is truly magnificent.”
“Where are you staying?”
“In an inn near Trajan’s thermae.”
“You can come to stay here with us.” said Lucilla.
Maximus paled under his tan: living with them would only increase the possibility they might discover who he truly was….it was difficult to him to keep pretending he did not know what Marcus Aurelius or Commodus did, and he was more than a little embarrassed by the way mother and son kept on referring to him as ‘the Savior of Rome’. He knew he had actually done it, saving Rome from Commodus, but he did not see himself as a hero, but just as a man who had obtained his vengeance against the brat who had destroyed his life, in the same time realizing his beloved Caesar’s last command.
However Maximus could not stop thinking that it was not a casual event that he had saved Lucius’ life….was it possible it was Lucilla’s son the person the Gods wanted him to protect? Was the young man the reason which had led him back in Rome after so much time? There was only a way to know it: to stay near him and trying to discover why someone wanted Lucius dead.
“My Lady, I am honored by your kind invitation,” he said.
“Good! I will send a slave to retrieve your belonging from the inn,” said Lucilla, clearly happy to see him accept. “Now come with me, I will show you your room.”
Few days later, Maximus was awaken early by someone knocking on his door.
“Yes?” he called.
“May I come inside?” It was Lucius.
“Of course. Just let me dress.” Maximus quickly donned his tunica and then went to open the door.
“What I can do for you?”
“I am sorry to have awakened you so soon, but mother and I would like to show you something and since we don’t want to have all Rome watching us, we decided to leave before the roads are too crowed.” Lucius smiled.
Maximus nodded, “There is no problem. I’ll meet you in few minutes.”
Lucius went away, and the Spaniard closed the door behind his back. As he began to prepare for the mysterious trip, he thought about the last days. Lucius and Lucilla had received him as if he was a member of their family, insisting he called them by their given names. Maximus had been moved by their behavior and a bit embarrassed by it. It was so strange to treat Lucius as if they were the same age, especially because he had seen him when he was child, a child who had reminded him so much of his lost son. The Immortal had to force himself not to show too much protectiveness concerning the young man, more so since he now knew Lucius was victim of chronic breathing problems, the after effects of the pneumonia he caught while serving as a soldier in Germania. As for Lucilla, Maximus knew she was feeling guilty in his regards. For a long time he had suspected she had betrayed him to Commodus the night of the failed escape from Rome, probably to save Lucius’ life, and now she seemed to seek from him a sort of absolution, as if the son could bestow to her the forgiveness the father could no longer give. Maximus was more than ready to give her what she so desperately sough — he had forgiven her long time ago — but of course he could not do so until she asked it in some way. In fact there was no way ‘Marcus’ could know what had happened that tragic night of so many years before.
Maximus finished tying his gladius to his belt, hiding it under his white toga, and left his room to meet Lucius and Lucilla, more than a little curious to know where they were taking him.
The room was dark, lit by torches and candles which created shadow plays on the walls and on the many marble busts aligned in its center. The space looked like a corridor with a curved roof but Maximus understood it was a family tomb. The Aurelii-Antonine family tomb. Along the two long walls were aligned the marble boxes which contained the mortal rests of many members of Lucilla and Lucius’ family. There was the grave of Faustina, Marcus Aurelius’ beloved wife. There was that of Lucius Verus senior. There were many of Lucilla’ siblings, many of them having died while still children, to demonstrate how hard was life, even for the progeny of an emperor. And in the least lightened corner of the mausoleum there was also Commodus’ grave, a simple box with no inscriptions outside of his name. But Maximus’ eyes did not linger very much on his enemy’s tomb, his attention was attracted by the carved box standing just in front of the door, at the end of the corridor. He walked quickly to it, followed closely by Lucilla and Lucius, and then stopped as his eyes recognized the feature of the bust adorning the tomb. They were so like the man they portrayed what he desperately wanted to touch them, to caress the cheek with the gesture of a loving son. But he had to contain his feelings because, once more, Marcus Decimus Meridas could not know the bust he was staring at was Marcus Aurelius’. Feeling his throat constrict with emotion, he turned away, trying to cover his tears, when the flames dancing on a metal inscription caught his eyes. He looked better and then paled as he read what it said:
A BELOVED SON
A LOVING HUSBAND AND FATHER
A TRUE FRIEND
THE SAVIOR OF ROME
Moving like a drunken man he walked near the marble box and touched it, noticing that it was the first one at the right of Marcus Aurelius’ one, the place reserved for the most beloved son. His trembling hands grazed the golden wolf’s head which adorned the tomb…it was identical to that which he had carried on his breastplate as general of the Felix Legion.
Behind him, Lucius and Lucilla saw him tremble but neither of them could possibly know the turmoil of his heart. In the end he took several deep breaths before turning to his hosts and murmur, “I have no words to thank you.”
“It was the least we could do for your father. My grandfather loved him as his son and so that place rightly belonged to him. We took you here to show you that your father’s memory is not forgotten, and it won’t be while the Aurelii family exists,” said Lucius with solemnity, and Lucilla nodded, her own eyes brimming with tears.
Maximus lowered his eyes, overwhelmed by emotion and ashamed of the fact he had to lied to them. In the end, he could not stay anymore in the mausoleum and so he whispered, “Forgive me, I need some fresh air.”
And speaking thus he almost ran outside.
As soon as they returned to the villa, Maximus excused himself and walked to his room, still unsettled by what he had seen.
Lucilla watched him leave the atrium and once again she was impressed by how much Marcus resembled his father.
Lucius stepped near her and murmured, “He seems shocked, does not he?”
“He is…. but who won’t be? Maybe we threw too much and too soon on him. On the other hand, he deserved to know.”
“However we still have to tell him that tomb is empty because someone stole Maximus’ body.” Lucius commented, then added, almost to himself, “I wonder who might have been….”
“I am afraid we will never knew and perhaps Marcus does not need to be informed about it. He had suffered enough.”
“Yes, mother, you are probably right.”
Lucius passed a hand over his forehead, and Lucilla immediately asked, “Are you feeling unwell?”
“Just tired. I think it is better I go to rest. Tomorrow’s meeting will be taxing.” The young man kissed his mother’s forehead and then disappeared from the room.
Lucilla sat heavily on a chair and sighed, feeling her heart constrict in pain. Lucius was still so youngbut he had already suffered so much, his life being plagued by one tragedy after another: first he had lost his father when only a child, then the uncle he had adored had been revealed to be a cruel madman; then he had caught the pneumonia which had left him weak and fragile and finally… finally he had lost his wife in childbirth. Lucilla could not help but think the Gods were punishing her son because of her faults, adding now to his pains, the fear for his life.
Who is attempting to take his life? the noble lady thought as she felt a surge of protectiveness in her heart. She had many suspects but no proof. Lucilla cursed under her breath the Praetorians which had arrived on the scene of the failed murder and had taken the beggar away before they could question him. But perhaps Marcus saw something…someone. He had said he followed Lucius’ intended assassin from the Forum….. maybe the man had just received his orders and Marcus, without knowing it, had seen the instigator instructing his killer. It was possible…she had to ask him again.
Her decision made, Lucilla stood up and walked through the domus, quickly reaching Marcus’ room, which was on the first floor, and knocked on his door. Not receiving any answer, she tried again and called, “Marcus? May I come in? I need to speak with you.” Once more only the silence replied to her and thus the noble lady pushed the door open and peeked her head inside to see if the young man was in the room or not.
The ante-chamber was empty and so she walked in calling again, “Marcus?”
When she finally found him, her breath caught in her throat. He was on the small terrace which opened from his room and was leaning on the marble balustrade which enclosed it, probably watching the persons who came and went in the road. But what surprised her most was he was standing there with only a linen towel wrapped around his hips. He clearly had just completed a quick bath and was letting the warm breeze dry his hair and skin.
Lucilla felt her cheeks warm with embarrassment and began to turn and go away before Marcus might notice her, when something caught her glance. It was a strange mark on his left arm. It looked like a scar, in the exact spot where Maximus had sported one. Lucilla thought it was a curious coincidence and so, seeing that Marcus seemed lost in his observation of the street, she stepped nearer to him to give a better look. As she scanned his body, Lucilla’s blood drained from her face: Marcus’ back was scarred and the marks were achingly familiar to her…. because they were of the same size and in the same places she remember them to be on Maximus’ body. On the left side of his neck were the slashes left by a tiger’ paw. On his right shoulder there was a X shaped mark caused by a barbarian arrow…..Lucilla closed her eyes, how many times she had kissed that scar, joking with Maximus, telling him he was now marked forever as a target…. And then her gaze moved down to his lower back where a small coin-sized mark stood in the exact place were the wound caused by Commodus’ dagger had been….
Lucilla began to tremble as the pieces of the mosaic fit themselves to create an incredible picture. Maximus’ body had never been buried. She had always thought someone had stolen it, maybe one of his fellow gladiators, but now….? Was it possible the Spaniard had not really died that terrible day but had instead left the Colosseum on his own legs? However the man in front of her looked barely thirty, while Maximus had to be at least fifty…
Lucilla was so caught she was in her reasoning that she did not noticed the object of her meditationsmove and then turn around…..
Maximus stayed silent, his gaze locked on Lucilla. She was pale, her eyes wide and she seemed miles away from that room. He was shocked to see her standing there and, judging by her trance-like state, he surmised she had noticed the scars on his body and put two and two together.
What will happen now? What I will say to her? he wondered.
As if she was reading his thought, Lucilla blinked and then walked in front of him, her gaze locked with his. Then she stopped, raised a trembling hand and without breaking their eyes contact she began to touch his chest, her fingertips searching for and finding the scars her memory remembered from the time they had been lovers.
In the end she let her hand fall and whispered, “Maximus…”
“Yes,” he replied as softly as she, knowing it was pointless to deny the truth.
“You are alive…but…but how is it possible?”
“It is a long story, Lucilla. And it might be better if you sit down while I tell it to you.”
The woman nodded and, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she walked back inside his room, sitting on the first chair she found and returning to look at him with expectation. Maximus followed her, put on a clean tunic, and then sat in front of her, beginning to tell everything had happened to him since the moment he had collapsed on the Colosseum sands twenty years before.
Lucilla listened to the story with fascination and wonder but, as much as it sounded crazy and impossible, she never doubted for a moment it was not the truth. Lucilla simply knew the man in front of her was Maximus. His scars were unique and as if they were not enough, there was also the stunning quickness with which the wound on his forearm had healed.
Immortal. she thought. That sounded incredible, but it had to be true. She had been there when he died in the Colosseum; she had been there when they washed his body for the funeral and they found the wound inflicted to him before the final match, the wound which had killed him. There was no doubt he had died. But now he was alive, without having aged a year, looking even younger than she remembered.
He was truly the Chosen One…
But chosen to do what?
Was it possible he was here to once more protect Lucius, as he had done in the past?
Maximus seemed to read in her mind because he abruptly asked, “Who is threatening Lucius’ life?”
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly, “but I can tell you WHY they are trying to kill him.”
“It is a start. Please tell me.” Maximus bent forward on his chair, his elbows on his thighs, his chin resting on his joined hands.
“What do you know about the political situation in Rome?”
“Not very much, I am afraid. I know that Lucius Septimius Severus is the new Caesar but other than that….” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Politics has never been your strong point,” Lucilla chided gently before returning serious. “So let’s begin. After Commodus’ death, Gracchus tried to restore the republic but his attempt failed because too many senators wanted to take more power than their peers, when they did not want to become Caesar themselves. It was clear Rome was not ready for such a change, not without a strong man keeping order among the power-hungry.” Lucilla stopped a minute and exchanged a look with Maximus, recognizing she now knew that was the role Marcus Aurelius had reserved for his Spanish general. Then she continued, “The Praetorians took advantage of the situation by selling the Purple to the highest bidder, Consul Helvius Pertinax.”
“I know about him. But he ruled for only a brief time, did he not?”
“Yes, the Praetorians killed him when he was not able to pay the money he had promised to them. After that, we had several years of civil war during which the various legions scattered in the empire elected their generals as emperors. In the end Septimius Severus won over all of his opponents and the Senate declared him Caesar. However, he is not a politician, just like you. He is a basically good man, a soldier who does not know how to move in the political arena. He is not able to be subtle, he is more used to barking orders, and does not know how Rome really ‘works’….”
“You mean he does not know about the secret power maneuvers?” Maximus smirked.
“Yes…The personal ambitions, the power struggles, the oiling that must be done here and there…the secret alliances …the corruption… the weaknesses and the virtues of the people working with him…He does not know anything of it. Having lived in the provinces for most of his life and being used to the military moral code, he cannot possibly being aware of them. However he is a man who believes in Rome and was smart enough to come visit Lucius and ask for his help.”
“Oh.” Maximus’ eyes shone with interest.
“Lucius is my father returned to life. There is nothing more important than Rome for him. The well-being of the empire is his first thought when he wakes up in the morning and the last thing crossing his mind before he falls asleep. He is everything Commodus never was and if he had been able to prove his value on the battlefield, the legions would have followed him anywhere. But his illness stopped him….”
“I see,” murmured Maximus, finally understanding how things really were, “Lucius Septimius Severus is ruling Rome, but the true mind behind him is Lucius’….” he quirked an eyebrow, silently asking Lucilla if he had gotten it right.
She smiled, “That’s it. Lucius has the political ability and acumen Severus will never possess, but Caesar has the military experience and the loyalty of the troops. They are close friends and form a good team. The situation in the empire is already improved since they began to work together. However,” and Lucilla sighed deeply, “there are persons who don’t want Severus as emperor. Senators, equites, military leaders who want to take his place….not to mention the Prefect of the Praetorium.”
“No, Quintus Clarus retired from his position many years ago and disappeared from the political scene. No, I am referring to Aelius Falco, the Senator’s son. He is even more ambitious and treacherous than his father, but Severus is keeping him under control…for now. All these persons want to see Caesar go down, but they could not kill him because the legions and the mob would revolt.”
“But if they kill Lucius, no army would rebel, while Severus would loose his most trusted and important ally and advisor. Without him, Caesar would soon commit some mistake which would alienate him the mob support….ensuring his own downfall.”
“Exactly: kill the brain to ruin the arm.”
“A clever plan.”
Silence fell on the room before the Spaniard broke it with another question, “There have been other attempts to Lucius’ life?”
“One evening someone served him poisoned wine. Luckily they were clumsy, choosing a wine Lucius does not like very much. He drank very little of it and that saved his life, but he was unwell for a couple of days. That was when we decided to stop living in the Palace and returned here in his villa, where we are certain of our servants’ loyalty. Lucius is safe here, but as you saw, he is still very much in danger.”
Maximus nodded, as silence reigned again in the chamber, as its two occupants looked at each other.
Lucilla desperately wanted to beg Maximus to protect her son, but she bit her lips, refraining to do so. How could she ask him such a thing, after everything he had already done for Rome and the way she had repaid him, betraying him to Commodus and causing his death?
However she did not need to be worried because he said softly, “If you allow me, I would like to stay here and help you.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, her eyes brimming with tears. “I did not dare to ask it from you….not after what happened twenty years ago.” She lowered her head, clearly showing to what she was referring.
Maximus stood up and walked to her, reaching out a hand to raise her chin. When they eyes met he murmured, “I forgave you, Lucilla. I did so many years ago.”
She rose to her feet and embraced him tightly, “Oh, Maximus,” she sobbed, releasing years of guilt and pain.
The Spaniard kept her pressed to his chest as her tears wet his tunic, happy he had been able to begin her healing as she had done for him, giving him a new purpose.
Lucius’ protector kissed Lucilla’s grey hair and swore to himself and to her no harm would come to her son.
In the next weeks, Maximus tried to devise a plan to ensure Lucius’ safety.
The first thing he had to do was to acquire the young man’s trust and collaboration and the only way he could obtain them was to reveal to him the truth about his nature.
Lucilla approved his move and helped him to convince her son he was Maximus Decimus Meridas and that he was immortal. In the beginning Lucius was skeptical, but he changed his mind when Maximus repeated to him, word by word, the conversation they had have twenty years before, when the young child had approached the gladiator called the Spaniard and talked to him through the bars of a cage.
Maximus then informed Lucius of his intention to become his bodyguard. The young senator resented the idea of being protected, but when the former general pointed out to him that the future of Rome was in stake along with his life, he finally realized it was his duty to do everything he could to ensure his own safety.
But he refused to stay closed in the villa: he wanted to tour the city, to visit the poorer quarters to see how the persons lived….he wanted to be a man for the people.
And as dangerous as it was, Maximus could not help but approve his behavior, impressed as he was by Lucius’ good will and desire to work for the good of Rome. Thus the Spaniard became Marcus Aurelius’ nephew’s shadow, following him everywhere, ready to act at the first sign of danger. Soon Lucius grew so accustomed to his bodyguard that he no longer minded to have him near and the two men became good friends.
Along with protecting Lucius when he went outside, Maximus created a tighter security system around the villa, buying four dogs and training them for guard and defense. Men could be bought but not so the animals. The wolfhounds stayed closed in the courtyard during the days, because they could be dangerous for the people who sometimes crossed a portion of the villa garden to cut out some of road, but during the nights they roamed freely all of the estate.
Also the general began to investigate about who could be behind the assassination attempts but, as Lucilla had said there were no lack of suspects and unfortunately he could not go to them and question them. Maximus tried to interrogate the beggar he had arrested, but when he and Lucius finally got the permission of the vigiles‘ commander to visit the prison, they were informed the hired assassin had been killed during a failed escape. The guard who reported the event sounded so unconvincing neither Maximus or Lucius believed it for a moment: it was clear the man who had armed his hand had also closed his mouth forever.
Their only track erased, Maximus and Lucius could only return to the villa and darkly admit the only way to get more evidence about the instigator was to wait for him to make another move. Neither of them liked the idea, but they had no choice.
However, not all of Maximus’ time was spent guarding Lucius or worrying about him. The senate meetings were scheduled only once or twice a week, and the young man’s visits around the city not so frequent either because of his delicate health. He spent the greatest part of his time in his villa, studying the documents and reports Caesar sent to him every morning, leaving plenty of free time to the former general. Maximus used it to care for his business in Gaul, writing instructions to his trusted foreman and bankers; to going out of the city walls to ride in the country; to train with his sword and especially to tour Rome. There were so many things to be seen, so many secret corners to be admired. He loved to roam the libraries and the bookshops and to spend time watching the street actors.
He also liked to spend time on the terrace of his room, watching the people moving along the road, trying to guess what was their work and unconsciously memorizing their habits, so as to immediately notice if someone was acting strange.
And it was during one of these moments of quiet observation that he saw her for the first time.
It was Maximus’ favorite time of day: early morning. The streets near the domus were deserted, and the sturdy buildings looked almost as timeless as Maximus himself, their bright marble glowing in the pre-dawn light.
The former general was staring at a little garden near the entrance to the villa, absently stroking his once again bearded chin. Jasmine grew there and, though he was barely conscious of the habit, it was where his eyes always seemed to rest when there were no people to be observed in the street.
He frowned as a movement near the gate attracted his attention. Who was disturbing his solitude? It was too early for visitors- and he doubted that the servants would venture into the garden at such a drowsy hour, especially considering the many tasks they had to do and the dogs had been already recalled.
Squinting his eyes for a closer look, the Spaniard’s curiosity grew, rather than abated. It was not one of the servants. It was a woman, her fine, if simple clothes and careful walk at odds with her lack of accompaniment. Surely the woman knew how dangerous the streets could be alone! Why didn’t she travel in a litter, or with slaves?
Almost as though she sensed his presence, the woman turned toward the villa, and he smiled when he saw her pretty face. She was too far away to gauge the color of her eyes, but they had a wide, pleasing shape, complimented by a slim nose and impossibly tiny mouth. The well-scrubbed face was different from the elegantly painted ladies who he saw when he went with Lucius to court or to some social gathering – wholesome and fresh in a way that reminded him of home. There was something else in the woman’s look that captivated him. She seemed familiar, almost as though she were someone he had known long ago. Noting that the girl could not possibly be past her mid-twenties, he shook the thought away as fantasy. Still, he continued to watch her as she wound her way through the garden path, and finally disappeared through another gate. Then he returned inside his room to prepare for his day.
The great domus was adorned with pomp, showing that its owner had not saved money to impress his guests, but all that decoration seemed a bit exaggerated to Maximus’ eyes, as the rooms were filled with too many statues, vessels of flowers, musicians and such. However, he was not there to criticize the villa owner’s taste but to escort Lucius and Lucilla as they participated in the banquet Paulus Cornelius had organized to celebrate his appointment to consul. Truth to tell, the office had lost almost all of the meaning it had in the Republican age, since all the power was now in Caesar’s hands, but it still was the necessary step to became the governor of one of the numerous provinces of the empire and thus increase the family’s fortunes and because of that it was a much sought after post. Almost all the aristocracy was there, and Maximus used the occasion to study some of the people who might have been behind the attempted murders. Lucilla helped him by whispering in his ears the guest’s names and their political ideas, telling him if they were with or against Septimius Severus. The emperor was not present but his wife, the Augusta Julia Domna, was there to represent him. Maximus noticed she was of Oriental descent and seemed to attract the people as a lamp with the butterflies. A squad of black-clad Pretorians completed the list of the guests– their Prefect among them — and Maximus feel a shiver ran along his spine, the dislike he had always harbored as a soldier for the imperial guards being still very strong inside him.
The celebration went on for a long time, with a sumptuous meal with so much food to feed a small army followed by the reading of a famous writer’s latest work, the spectacle of Egyptian dancers floating light as feathers across the marble porch and a musical exhibition.
Although he was not feeling totally comfortable in that crowded space, Maximus found himself enjoying the performances, losing himself to the rhythm of the music and conversing animatedly with a senator with the hobby of horses. However, the Spaniard snapped back to full alert when Lucius said, “It is too hot here, I need some fresh air.”
Lucilla and Maximus turned to look and saw his face was sweaty and red. “Yes, I think some fresh air will you a lot of good. This villa has a beautiful garden,” commented the woman.
Lucius smiled and stood up, preparing to leave the triclinium, and the Spaniard pushed back his chair, ready to go with him.
“No, stay here, Marcus, there is no reason for you to came with me. I will only take a brief walk and then return.” Lucius’ tone was full of authority, and even if Maximus did not care too much for orders because he was not a servant, he could not protest them in public, not in front of such assembled group. So he acknowledged the young senator’s wish with a nod of his head and watched as he crossed the room and went outside. However, as soon as Lucius was disappeared, Maximus rose to his feet determined to follow him. But he had just gone few steps when a figure clad in silk cut in his way and exclaimed, “May I ask your name, sir? I don’t think I know you.” It was the empress, Julia Domna, and the Spaniard groaned inwardly, because there was no way he could pursue Lucius until the Augusta gave him leave.
“My lady,” he said bowing his head, “I am Marcus Decimus.”
“And from where do you come? Your accent is very peculiar.”
“I was born in Hispania but now I live in Gaul.”
“Where in Gaul?”
“Near Aquae- Sextiae.”
“Ah,” the Augusta smiled, “I know where it is but unfortunately I had never visited it. I am more familiar with the Eastern parts of the empire: Armenia, Judea and, of course, my native Syria.”
“Well, my lady, I had never been to Syria but I know Africa very we-” Maximus’ words were cut by a blood curling scream coming from the garden.
“LUCIUS!” the former general shouted before darting away from the triclinium, across the perystilium and then into the garden as muffled cries continued to echo in the stillness of the night.
“LUCIUS!” Maximus called again, running as fast as he could, brushing away bushes and low trees.
“Here!” came the feeble reply, and the Spaniard turned sharply to the left, following the voice. He finally left behind the vegetation and arrived in a small clearing where he could see a pool sparkling the moonlight. The water was agitated and Maximus saw a head peek in the middle of it. Without hesitating, he began to run to the pool while removing his toga and dove into it, not caring about the frightened shouts which followed his action, “Don’t go! It is full of Moray eels!”
As soon as his body was in the water Maximus felt little sharp teeth sink in his flesh, but he ignored the pain and, taking the Moray eel by its tail, he pulled them away and continued to swim till he reached Lucius.
The young man was breathing hard and sputtering water from his mouth. He was exhausted, his soaked toga hindering his movements and making him struggle against its weight.
“Lucius!” said the Spaniard with urgency, pulling away a Moray eel which had bitten the hem of the laticlavius. “Stay calm, I will take you out of here!” Maximus passed an arm behind Lucius’ back and locked it around his chest. Then he began to swim to the shore, using his free arm to push away the fishes.
When they finally reached the shore, they found a small crowd gathered on the edge of the pool. Two men helped Maximus to drag Lucius’ body on land, and they had him lie down, while someone else covered him with a wool sheet.
Lucilla immediately rushed near her son, calling anxiously for him, “Lucius!”
“I….am…well…” whispered the young man taking in rasping breaths. Then he turned to Maximus, who was kneeling near him and added, “Thank you….. I…. should have ….listened to you…”
The former general frowned and stared at his friend’s eyes, silently asking if he had caught the real meaning of the sentence.
Lucius nodded, confirming that he had not fallen in the pool by accident.
In that moment, Paulus Cornelius knelt near them and said, “Senator, I have no words to tell you how sorry I am…I..”
Lucius rose to a sitting position, Lucilla adjusting the sheet over his shoulders, and said, “It is not your fault, Consul, I was clumsy.” He took in a deep breath and went on, “I walked too near the pool and did not notice the edge was slippery. This will teach me to be more careful.”
Cornelius smiled, feeling relieved the powerful senator was not considering him responsible for the incident and commented, “Luckily the Moray eels in the pool are young ones. If you had fallen in there only two days ago, before they were killed to be cooked for this banquet, you could have died.”
Lucius nodded in silence and then turned to Maximus, “Can you help me to stand up, Marcus? My legs feel like butter.”
“Of course.” The Spaniard helped him to his feet and freed him from his soaked toga, which he squeezed and threw over his own shoulder. Then he flanked Lucilla’s son and, with his arm around his back, helped him to walk away from the pool and back inside the villa. As they crossed the garden, Lucius whispered, “I did not fall inside, someone pushed me.”
“Did you see who it was?”
“No, just a flash out of the corner of my eye. I am sorry.”
“Don’t be. Tell me, was this ‘flash’ white or looked like a light color?”
“No…It did not seem so..”
“Uhm.” Maximus pursued his lips.
“What is it?” Lucius asked, seeing his expression.
“The reception is full of senators, equites and other citizens, all of them wearing their white togas. The only ones who are not wearing something white are the servants, the ladies, and the Praetorians.”
“Oh Gods, the Praetorians! Aelius Falco is here with the Empress!”
“Exactly. And he was not near her when she stopped me to talk, just after you went outside.”
“Do you think it was him?”
“Perhaps. I don’t want to jump to a conclusion but I can’t ignore the fact either.”
“Right.” Lucius shivered, either because of tension or because he was wet and added, “I will salute the Empress and then we will go home. I had enough ‘entertainment’ for this evening.”
Maximus smiled bitterly, “I could not agree more.”
Maximus woke up with a start, his body covered with sweat, the images of Lucius being ripped apart by ferocious Moray eels still vivid in him mind. He took a couple of deep breaths to steady his nerves and then left his bed, went to his door, opened it and stepped out in the corridor till he reached Lucius’ room. He knew it was silly, but he needed to ascertain he was all right.
The Spaniard pushed the heavy bedchamber aside and slipped in, tiptoeing to the bed, being careful to be very silent.
Lucius was lying on his back, his eyes closed and his features relaxed, his chest rose and fell freely.
Maximus breathed a sigh of relief. The soak in the pool did not seem to have caused damage to his delicate lungs. Lucilla’s son was safe.
Quietly closing the door, Maximus slipped back into the hall and then let out another long sigh. It was still very early morning, but he knew that he would never get back to sleep. He decided to step onto the porticate, hoping that the fresh air would help him clear his mind.
As soon as the former general stepped into the porch, the four dogs arrived to check who he was, and he caught the chance to close them in the inward garden where they spent the days. He also fed the animals, patting their heads to say ‘thank you’ for another night of good work. Then he returned outside and leisurely watched the birth of a new day.
Noting the early light of dawn breaking over the eastern edge of the city, the soldier centered his eyes on the far end of the street, wondering if the mysterious young woman would appear again today. He had seen her several times since that first day- always moving carefully, but quickly through the early morning shadows, and he had begun to look forward to her daily arrival- slowly gathering clues to her purpose and identity.
She always came from the bottom of the street- which meant that she lived on another hill, or in the Suburra. From time to time she carried a basket, or other small parcel, which Maximus took to mean that she was employed- why else would she struggle with something that could be easily assigned to a slave- and she wasn’t a slave. For one thing, her demeanor was far too practiced and elegant, and, though plain, her clothes were far too fine. For another, a woman so beautiful would hardly be wasted carrying parcels or running messages to the palace! Maximus closed his eyes, conjuring a memory of her face, wondering why her beauty still bore such a powerful attraction. He had nearly met her once by surprise, standing by the villa gate as Lucius departed for an early senate meeting, and he had used the opportunity to study her face carefully. Her hair, half-glimpsed beneath the folds of the omnipresent stola, was a sometimes ragged cascade of brown-gold curls. And her eyes, like an incarnation of the Goddess Diana, were grey. It was an unusual combination- fitting for an unusual girl.
Maximus was just about to turn back to the house when he saw a flash of white coming into view around the corner. She had come after all. Maximus stepped behind the pillar to watch. The girl was walking very quickly today- her usual grace less prominent as her sandals clattered on the cobbled streets. She was late, the Spaniard realized with a grin, smiling at how the exertion of the walk had tinted her cheeks a delicate pink.
His blue-green eyes continued to follow her along her usual path, through the farthest part of the garden through the gate, and then back onto the street leading toward the imperial palace until, at last, the lavender folds of the dress she was wearing that day disappeared from his view. He was about to return inside when an unexpected sound met his ears.
Lidia couldn’t contain the cry that spilled from her lips at the touch of the Praetorian. She twisted to avoid his grasp, tightening her stola around her.
“Easy, sweetheart.” The man said, his laughter drawing the attention of another guard nearby. “In an awful hurry, aren’t you.” He leaned forward to poke in the basket that she was carrying. ‘A special delivery’ for the emperor.”
His companion let a lecherous gaze travel down the open neck if the girl’s tunica. “Wouldn’t mind having a peek at it myself…have to make sure that it’s safe and all.”
Lidia took a step backwards, trying to avoid the men without starting a confrontation. How she wished that the streets weren’t so deserted! Praetorians were a law unto themselves, and she realized with a shiver that she was completely at their mercy.
“Let’s make sure that she’s not carrying any knives.” The first man snickered, laying his hand heavily on Lidia’s breast, squeezing it suggestively in his gloved hand.
Unable to control her fear, Lidia screamed again, beginning to tremble as she felt the man’s hot breath on her cheek.
Why wasn’t anyone coming to help her?
She knew the answer- it was the same reason that she had been warned – often – not to venture on the streets alone so early, the reason that she cut through the Lady Lucilla’s garden every morning rather than risk facing the two men who guarded the first palace gate.
In spite of her defiant expression, Lidia was afraid. The men could rape her, here, on the street- and no one would punish them.
“Let me go!” she hissed, feeling her fear slowly give way to righteous anger. “You have no right to touch me.”
At this the man only laughed, a teasing expression on his face as he leaned forward to make her kiss him. Lidia thought that she would gag at the feel of his tongue in her mouth, and she did what came naturally- she bit him.
The man jerked away quickly. Blinked twice, and then dealt the woman a backhand blow that sent the woman sprawling into the street, the contents of her basket spilling onto the worn stones. “Bitch!” He yelped. You’ll pay for that!” and with those words, he reached forward, ready to yank her to her feet by the shoulder of her tunica- if not for the intervention of a strange new voice.
“Leave the woman alone.”
Lidia turned her head sharply toward the sound. Wondering who would be brave enough – or stupid enough – to challenge a Praetorian. Her eyes widened as she saw the imposing man standing across the square. He was clad in simple, but finely tailored clothes which closely hugged his well-muscled frame. His dark brown hair was trimmed in the military style as it was his beard, and blue-green eyes seemed to glow with martial intent. “I said, leave her alone.”
The Praetorians looked at each other, in disbelief at his insolence, before sliding their hands to their scabbards. “
Look out!” Lidia screamed to her savior, but she was a moment too late- the men had already sprung upon their victim, knives drawn, thirsty for a kill.
The woman knew that she should use the opportunity to run away, but she was too horrified, and too fascinated to move, awe-struck as the single man deflected the initial blows and then, in quick, efficient movements, disarmed his attackers of their weapons, and finally, sent them to the ground in unconscious heaps.
Lidia stared, hardly noticing as the man stepped toward her.
“Are you all right?” He asked, the gentleness in his voice a sharp contrast with the ferocity he had just displayed. “Did they hurt you?”
“No,” she answered, as she slowly regained her senses. “They were only trying to scare me, I think.”
The man snorted, as if to imply that she could believe what she wanted, but he knew the truth. “You should be careful.” He admonished her. “It isn’t a good idea for young women to wander the streets alone… shouldn’t your husband accompany you?”
Lidia looked at her feet. “I’m… I’m not married.” She said with embarrassment. “My ta-” Her lips fell suddenly silent. “I’m going to the palace to work.”
“To work?” he had been right. Internally, Maximus smiled. “To do what?”
Almost without thinking, he lifted one of her small hands into his own, smoothing the soft, callous free skin as if to emphasize his question, hoping that the answer wasn’t what he had first suspected.
“I teach manners to the princesses.” The girl answered unevenly. She quickly removed herself from his grasp, hoping he hadn’t noticed the way that her hands trembled at his touch. “We eat breakfast together, and then have our lesson before they go for their ride.” Her eyes flashed with concern as she recalled the reason for her earlier haste, and she lifted her skirts and turned to go. “I’m terribly late this morning…if you would excuse me.” She took two steps before turning back to look over her shoulder.
“Thank you….?” Her raised eyebrow invited him to supply her with a name.
“Marcus.” The man said after a long pause. “Marcus Decimus….and you’re welcome-”
“Lidia.” The man’s lips turned upwards on the ends, the smile making his face even more handsome. “You’re welcome, Lidia. I hope to see you again soon.”
She nodded again with her head and then walked away.
Maximus followed her with his gaze until she disappeared from his sight and then returned to the house.
He was not proud to admit it, but beating the Praetorians had been nice as meeting Lidia. He was beginning to resent the mere existence of the imperial guards. He knew Septimius Severus too did not like them and was gradually trying to reduce their powers…. maybe it was why Aelius Falco wanted his downfall.
Lucius spent the entire day after the fall in the water in bed, but he did not neglect his job, working as usual on the papers the emperor sent to him, along with a note from Septimius Severus who wished him good health after his misadventure.
Maximus, Lucilla and Lucius also discussed in detail what had happened the evening before, trying to decide if the Augusta had detained the Spaniard only by chance, or if her move had been premeditated to prevent him from following Lucius outside while Falco or someone else pushed him in the pool.
“I don’t think she did it on purpose,” said Lucilla. “She loves her husband and the power his position ensures her.”
“Power?” Maximus distrusted everyone who liked to have it.
“Yes, but she uses it in a very positive way. She has created a circle of poets, writers, painters, musicians. She likes to call them at court, give them food and board and have them produce masterpieces dedicated to her.”
“Mother is right, Maximus. I too think it was only an unfortunate case. I saw her looking at you during the dinner: she did not attend the senate meetings and so it is probable she was only curious to know who you are.” Lucius lowered his head and then added, “Nothing of this would have happened if I had not decided to go out alone. I promise that from now on I will never let you behind.”
“Good to know because I won’t be left behind anymore.” Maximus stared hard at Lucius for several seconds, before breaking in a grin which relieved a bit of the tension in the room.
“What we do now?” asked Lucilla after some moments of silence. “We cannot make accusations to Falco without proof.”
“And obtaining them will be very difficult. First of all, he is very clever so he surely covered his tracks, and secondly he has the loyalty of his men. That’s why Septimius Severus cannot replace him, he is too powerful. The Praetorians would revolt if he does such a thing and even if his legions could overwhelm them, he does not want to risk a battle inside the city walls, because the civilians would pay the highest price,” commented Lucius.
Maximus nodded, approving Caesar’s behavior and sighed, “This leave us as we are, waiting for another one of his moves..” he shook his head, clearly displeased. Lucilla and Lucius could only silently agree with him.
The next day, with Lucius not needing to go out, Maximus decided to leave the villa to spend sometime in the city. He did not like to wait without doing anything, and he needed to relieve his tension.
So he went in the forum, watching two lawyers debate a trial about a ridiculous matter for more than two hours, listened to some gossip concerning a well-know matron and her new lover and then left the marble pavements and columns to visit the market area.
The familiar smell of vegetables and animals assaulted his senses, and he lost himself in the observation of the stands and their merchandises, but after a while he became bored and decided to go away and return home to train with his sword.
But then he changed his plans…
“Marcus?” A voice called as Maximus strode purposefully through the marketplace, walking past the seller’s wares as though he didn’t see them as all as he returned to Lucilla’s manor.
There was the voice again. It was closer this time. Blinking with surprise, Maximus realized that the voice might be calling for him.
The Spaniard’s tanned face spread into a broad grin when he saw the woman behind him. It was Lidia, a market basket tucked under her arm, and a wary smile on her own lips. “Marcus? I – I’m not disturbing you, am I?”
After a moment of confusion, the former soldier shook his head vigorously. “No!” He said quickly, not wanting his failure to answer the hails to be misinterpreted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were calling for me…. it’s not exactly a unique name.”
“No.” Lidia agreed, taking another step toward him. “I suppose that it isn’t. How are you? I hoped that I’d see you again.” She blushed as though the words had not come out precisely as she intended. “I mean, I wanted to tell you thank you for the other morning.”
The former general nodded, his cheeks pinking slightly with the pleasure that he felt in her a sense of gratitude. “I was glad to help. Those….’men’,” he said the word through clenched teeth, as though it were not quite appropriate, “need to be brought under control.”
Lidia nodded in agreement.
“I was worried about you. I hadn’t seen you since the…incident.”
“No… I decided it would be better to find an alternate route,” she explained. “I go to the palace after riding lessons now…it isn’t for as long but…” Her voice trailed off, and then she said abruptly. “You were watching for me?”
Maximus blinked, surprised to be caught in the admission. “Yes, I mean no. I mean…” He took a breath, uncertain about why he felt so disconcerted. “I knew that you traveled that way every day and… that is, I had noticed you before and-”
Lidia silenced him by laying her hand on his forearm and his breath left in a rush at the electricity of the simple touch. “Thank you,” she said quietly, the softness in her gray eyes saying much more than her words.
They stared at each other for a moment, and then Maximus cleared his throat, uncertain about what he was feeling – and not sure that he liked it at all.
“Where are you going?” he asked, gesturing to the basket with his chin.
“Shopping. I’ve finished my lessons for the day. I was going to get some food for dinner, and some herbs that my father needs for his medicine.”
“He’s sick?” Maximus said sympathetically.
“Yes.” Lidia answered, and the Spaniard felt a tug in his heart at the sadness in her eyes. “He’s been dying for a long time…” She looked down at her hands, and then back up, a forced smile on her lips. “…but he is sturdy – and obstinate….and they tend for him well at the hospital.”
The former general’s eyebrows arched in interest. “Hospital? Your father was a soldier then?” The government provided doctors for men retired from the army. A private citizen would be treated in his home – if he could afford treatment at all.
“Yes. In the Legions in Germania.”
Germania. Maximus could not help but smile nostalgically as he wondered if Lidia’s father had been one of the thousands of men who had fought with him along the Danube. “Well, I hope that he gets well soon.” He said whole-heartedly.
“Thank you.” Lidia gave him another shy smile, and then let her eyes drift to the basket. “Well, I don’t want to detain you…”
“Not at all!” Maximus said, a bit too quickly. “I don’t have any particular place to be for a while…let me carry your basket. It will be heavy when it is full.”
“I -” Lidia parted her lips as if she were going to decline the offer – suggest that it wasn’t necessary,that is wasn’t very heavy, that she wasn’t going to go shopping after all – and Maximus felt his heart stop in his chest as he waited for the words to come. The glimmer of attraction that he felt for the girl was growing, and he was in no hurry for their meeting to come to a close. His tension was relieved only when her mouth closed again, and she held out the basket.
“Thank you.” she relied, simply.
Maximus and Lidia passed the afternoon slipping between the colorful stalls of the marketplace. Neither party was in a particular hurry, and they commented to each other about the exotic wares, and amusing street performers that they encountered. He was astonished at how educated Lidia seemed – a fact that only added to the cloud of mystery that surrounded her. In spite of her apparently modest financial means, it was clear that she had, at least, studied with a good private tutor. She had replied, in perfect, unaccented Greek, to the fishmonger who had sold her a bottle of garum, and she demonstrated a remarkable grasp of geography as they chatted about the origins of the merchandise.
The girl was very careful with the coins that she had in the pouch she carried around her wrist. Unlike in the Eastern markets, the stated prices were not negotiable- but that didn’t mean that Lidia was unable to seek out a bargain. She seemed to know precisely which stall had the best price for every item on her list- and was willing to walk the length of the city, if needed, to obtain it.
At last, the little basket was full, and Lidia’s list was completed. The pair meandered away from the main thoroughfare, to an adjoining plaza surrounded by food-sellers and little shops.
“That smells good,” Lidia commented, her eyes drifting toward a storefront where a man was vending sticks of roasted meat.
“Are you hungry?” Maximus asked quickly. Then, without waiting for an answer, replied. “Wait here,”and gestured to a stone bench before darting away.
He returned a few minutes later with two skewers of sausages and two clay cups filled with wine. He handed one of each to his companion, and then settled down beside her, watching the life in the market unfold in front their eyes.
They watched the persons moving across the stands in silence for a few moments, Lidia staring into the fountain at the center of the square, and Maximus watching her face intently. Was it possible that she had grown more beautiful in the hours since they had met in the marketplace? When he had first seen her, the freckle on her upper lip, and the untamed tendrils of hair that had slipped out of their arrangement had seemed like mars on her appearance- but now they only made her seem rarer and more perfect.
“What are you thinking about?” he inquired at last.
Lidia blinked, and then blushed, taking a quick drink of her wine before gathering her basket into her lap. “I am thinking ….that I am late.” She said quickly, skittering to her feet.
“You aren’t leaving already.”
“I must. I don’t want tata to be worried…,”
“I thought he was in the hospital.”
“He is treated there, but he lives at home…he will be expecting me for dinner.”
Maximus’ thoughts raced for some pretense to make her stay. Finding none, he offered, “Let me walk you?”
Lidia bit her lip. “No. I’m sorry. It isn’t far and….tata doesn’t like for me to talk to strangers.”
“But-” The former general was reeling in surprise at her sudden action. Had he said something to upset her? “He doesn’t have to see me. Just let me make sure that you are safe. I….”
“No.” Lidia’s voice was regretful but certain.
“Will I ever see you again?” The Spaniard held his breath.
At last, Lidia stopped walking away, turning to study him with her wide grey eyes. “Do you want to see me again?”
“Yes.” Maximus admitted, “Very much.”
Maximus could see hesitation in the questioning gaze that met his own.
Instinctively, he raised his hand to brush her cheek. “What are you afraid of?” he asked tenderly.
“It’s….” The small mouth opened in explanation, but then clamped into a firm line. “I am not afraid.”
“Then why don’t you trust me?”
At least the remark drew a smile. “I don’t know.” Lidia answered. “It isn’t as if you are a total stranger that I met in the middle of the street.”
Maximus echoed her expression, finally dropping his hand from her face.
“Then please, let me see you again….I….I want to know you. I think that we could both use a…friend.”
“Very well, Marcus.” Lidia answered softly. “I will be your….friend. I must give lessons at the palace tomorrow morning, but you may meet me at the gates at noon.”
“Noon.” Maximus said firmly, and then added. “Are you sure that I can’t walk you home?”
He instantly regretted the words. Uneasiness instantly returned to his companion’s expression, and she turned once more toward the alley that led into the marketplace. “I am sure, Marcus.”
“Tomorrow.” Lidia answered, and with those words, she disappeared into the crowd.
The following day, a slow but steady rain began at dawn, and continued throughout the morning.
Maximus escort Lucius to the Palace for a early Senate meeting, standing in a corner of the large room as the patres conscripti discussed for a couple of hours about a law proposed by the emperor but which was the fruit of Lucius’ work. Maximus was amused by the way some of the Senators pointed those they believed to be negative points as there was some possibility to have the lex changed or even not approved….They were people who cannot see — or did not want to — times had changed and their role was to meekly obey to what Septimius Severus wanted. Marcus Aurelius had left more freedom to the Senate — he had even wanted to give the power to rule Rome back to it — but he had been an exception, not the rule among the emperors. Commodus had brutalized the ancient assembly, killing many of its members, and the Caesars who had reigned briefly after him had done almost the same. Now there was Septimius Severus, that being a soldier, with a soldier’s mind, did not like to spend hours listening to incessant discussion and who was trying to create a new military aristocracy in the empire, appointing soldiers to the most important offices. And that, of course, mused Maximus, was one of the many reasons the Senatorial class and the Praetorians — which usually did not come from the ranks of the legions but were almost all patricians — hated him.
When the meeting finally ended, just in time for him to escort Lucius back home and then go to his planned encounter with Lidia, the Spaniard walked in the center of the room and stepped beside his friend, who was receiving the congratulations of the political party with was more in favor of the emperor about the lex which had just been approved. Many senator also inquired about his health, being relieved his bath in the Moray eels pools had not left after effects.
Maximus and Lucius were just turning to leave the room when two men appeared in front of them. One was an elderly senator, the other a Praetorian. The Falcoes. The likeness between father and son was marked, especially in the calculating eyes and the hard mouth. Maximus remembered to have met Falco senior only briefly, during the celebrations for his victory in Vindobona and he remembered he did not like him then, as he did not like him now. Even with his hair all gray and his frail appearance, he looked like a snake ready to strike. And his son looked the same, his false smile as he greeted Lucius causing the Spaniard to want to smash his teeth with his fist.
“Verus, it is a pleasure to see you so well,” Falco senior said sounding too smooth to be true.
“Thank you, Falco.” replied Lucius with the same sweet tone, but his eyes betrayed his dislike. Even if he was only a boy when Commodus reigned, he knew that the senator had been his right arm, helping his uncle to commit many of his crimes and almost causing the boy’s and his mother’s death.
The old senator turned then to Maximus and looked at him frowning, “You look familiar to me. May I know your name?”
“My name is Marcus Decimus Meridas. I am General Maximus’ son.” The Spaniard stressed the words: he wanted them to know who was the man protecting Lucius.
“Oh.” To say the Falcoes were surprised would say nothing, they were shocked. They both knew the loyalty with which Maximus had served Marcus Aurelius and they were now wondering if the fierce looking man in front of them was doing the same with Lucius.
“I am.” the Spaniard gaze answered to them, “And I will not let anything happen to him.” he conveyed staring at Falco iunior.
The Prefect of the Praetorium narrowed his eyes, understanding the message. He then turned to his right and said, “Come Father, it is time to go home.”
“Yes, we too have to go,” added Lucius. “Senator, Prefect.” He bowed his head as salute and Maximus did the same, before they turned away and left the father-son team staring at their back.
After taking Lucius to his villa, Maximus rapidly changed his clothes and then walked back to the Palace atop the Palatine hill. The rain had not stopped and Maximus was worried that Lidia would not be able to meet him, but he found her waiting, just as she had promised, huddled beneath a portico in the wall that surrounded the palace gardens.
“Am I late?” Maximus said with a frown, the sopping hem of her tunica attesting the fact that she had been waiting for a long time.
Lidia shook her head. “No, I was early…The princesses were…. not amenable to their lessons today.” She said, with a sigh, her tone indicating that the little girls were rarely disposed toward the study of ladylike behavior.
Maximus nodded, stepping in out of the rain and looking at the sky. “I had thought we might go for a walk along the river, but….”
Lidia nodded, following his thoughts. “The weather did not cooperate.” She flashed him a tired smile. “Shall we reschedule?”
“No.” Maximus stepped forward, laying his hand lightly on her forearm as though he were concerned that she would try to dash away. “That is, there are other things to do…Perhaps we could go someplace to talk?” His mind raced ahead. “The temple…” he indicated, jutting his chin toward the towering structure that Augustus had dedicated to Apollo.
Lidia nodded and pulled her stola over her head. Maximus felt his heart skip a beat as, unexpectedly, she slipped her tiny hand into his own, and together they darted into the rain.
They sprinted across the plaza, hoping to avoid, as much as possible, being soaked by the ever-increasing downpour, but it was no use. By the time they arrived at their destination, they were dripping wet. Maximus tightened his grip on Lidia’s arm as they struggled up the slippery steps to the temple doors, pausing at last under the shelter between the great marble columns of the structure’s facade to give the girl a chance to catch her breath.
Lidia was laughing between gasps, apparently amused by their predicament. Her cheeks were flushed pink with exertion and her ample bosoms strained against the sodden fabric of her breath with each stacatto exhalation.
She was beautiful.
An appreciation for her form, almost fully revealed to him by the damp, clinging fabric of her garments, and for her face- the features tinted with a healthy glow from her run, struck the former general with almost physical force. Without conscious thought, his body reacted to the sight, the arm that held her sliding forward around her waist, crushing her forward against his chest and leading her to a deep, searching kiss.
The warmth of Lidia’s lips seemed to fill his body. Forgetting the rain, his appearance, and even the curious stares of the passing crowds, the Spaniard deepened the caress as he felt Lidia move against him, stroking the dripping curls on the back of her neck as he massaged her mouth against his own.
He had not felt so right… so complete for nearly 25 years, and he wished that the contact would never end, but of course it did. Reluctantly, he released Lidia from his embrace, searching her eyes for reprimand or rebuke, but he found none. The look the woman wore was one of curiosity, fear and, most startling at all, a hunger nearly equal to his own.
“We should go inside.”
Maximus wasn’t even aware that he was still holding Lidia’s waist until he heard her speak, and he stepped away quickly. “I-” he started to stammer, trying to conjure some sort of explanation for his conduct.
“-am wet.” she finished for him. “And cold.” Lidia took his hand and leaned forward, adding in an embarrassed whisper. “…and people are staring at us.”
Feeling somewhat reassured, the soldier followed the woman into the temple proper.
The large space was crowded and noisy, always a popular forum for conducting business or lecturing passers by, the area was even more crowded than usual, filled with the throngs of people who, like Maximus and Lidia, had been driven indoors by the rain. Maximus had never been inside one of the great Roman temples before, and he found it hard to hide his awe at the majestic scope of structure.
Lidia noticed the look on his face, and her own expression screwed into a look of puzzlement. “You act as if you have never seen it before…” she began.
“I haven’t!” Maximus answered.
Lidia blinked. “You’ve never been here before? How can a man live his entire life in Rome and..”
“You’re jumping to conclusions.” he interjected. “I never told you that I lived my entire life in Rome. I’ve only been here for a little longer than a month. I’m a farmer in Aquae-Sextiae in Gaul, and before that, I was in the Legions.”
“In the Legions?” Lidia looked as though she were struggling to absorb so much information at one time.
“Yes, in Germania. First at Augusta Vindelicorum, and then Vindobon-” Maximus shut his mouth an instant too late. Vindobona. It was clear that she had heard him- and understood the implications of what had been said
“Vindobona.” She repeated with a frown. “That’s impossible. That territory was ceded by the Germans when we were babies.” She eyed him carefully.
“VindoLANDA.” He corrected himself. “I meant to say Vindolanda…”
“Yes.” Maximus licked his lips uncomfortably. Telling her that he had a farm in Aquae-Sextiae was the truth. Saying that he had been in the legions before that, and letting her believe what she wanted about how long before that he meant, was only stretching reality. Vindalanda was a lie, and he hated abusing her trust.
“There are a lot of places that I haven’t been yet.” Maximus said, trying to change the subject. “Perhaps you could show them to me…the temple of Castor and Pollux, the Trajan’s Markets…”
“The Colosseum?” Lidia suggested.
Maximus felt his skin grow very pale. “I’ve seen that.” he said darkly.
Sensing that she had misspoken, Lidia gestures toward one of the sculptures that lined the vast wall, but she no longer held Maximus’ attention. He had turned inside of himself, reliving the memories that her words had conjured: the terrible journey from Hispania to Zucchabar, his trials in the provincial arena, the fetid reek of the Colosseum bowels in Rome….the warm blood that had bathed his skin, the rough sand that had caught his body when he finally fell and, finally, Selene and his son, standing in a field of wheat, waiting for him to return.
What was he doing here?
Remembering the kiss, Maximus felt his stomach tighten in self-loathing. His actions had been a betrayal to his memory of Selene- and of the trust that Lidia rested in him. What sort of future could they have together? Could he continue to lie to her day after day as he had about Britannia? Could he ever offer more than half a heart?
“We should go.” Maximus said abruptly, interrupting Lidia mid-sentence as she explained the identities of figures in a frieze. Instantly, the pretty features scrunched in displeasure.
“No….I….I think that the rain has stopped.” He gestured to one of the high windows, finally admitting a pale ray of sunlight that had broken though the menacing clouds. “Your father-“
“It upset you that I spoke about the Colosseum. I’m sorry, Marcus. I didn’t mean see a…a spectacle. They are terribly barbaric and crude, but the structure itself is-”
“Your father will be worried.” The Spaniard’s tone did not admit replies.
Lidia blinked rapidly several times, and then nodded her head regretfully.
“Yes. I suppose that he will.” She said quietly, and turned her body toward the door.
Maximus trailed in her wake until they reached the foot of the temple steps. “Can you make it home safely?” he queried.
“Yes.” Lidia replied. She looked at him intently, trying to catch his gaze, but her attempts were evaded. The soldier stared at his feet, trying to fight the sense that he was making a terrible mistake. “Goodbye Marcus.”
That night, Maximus slept uneasily, trying to push thoughts of Lidia from his mind, and concentrate on the task at hand: protecting Lucius, but it was harder than he anticipated. Every time he closed his eyes, his mind conjured images of her lovely face, struggling to look brave as he said goodbye. Had he done the right thing? He still loved Selene. He would always love Selene…but after twenty years, was it time to love again?
The thoughts made Maximus’s guilt increase. He believed that he would never forget the pain of losing Selene, of wanting her, but what was once a piercing agony had slowly faded to a dull ache. In fairness, being with Selene had always been a transient situation. He had spent the entirety of their marriage torn between his family and his military career, forever in a state of coming and going, always promising that next year, next season, after the next campaign things would change.
With surprise, Maximus realized that, in his 53 years of life, he had spent only eighteen months with Selene: five of them comprising their courtship and marriage, five more after the birth of their son, three a couple of years later and another short winter when Marcus was four years old. The last time he had seen them alive.
Maximus could only barely remember the exact shade of her hair, and the gentle scent of the garden that seemed to follow wherever she went….He tried to picture her smile, but it blended somehow with Lidia’s- finally fading to the sad grimace of farewell that haunted his dreams.
Perhaps that was what he was afraid of: finally saying goodbye. To love Lidia he would have to admit that Selene was really gone, that she was dead, but his life had continued…. perhaps after twenty years, it was finally time.
With a shuddering breath, Maximus threw back his blankets and padded toward the little shrine he kept in the corner of his room, kneeling reverently even as his mind raced to form the words he wanted to say….
“Blessed ancestors, hear my prayers…” He began as he always did. “Please guide my steps as you have always done. Give me the wisdom to know my duty…and the strength and courage to fulfill it. Marcus…” His voice wavered slightly as he turned to the smaller of the two figures that he had carried with him for nearly half his life. “Marcus, know that I think of you every day….pretending to be you….” he blinked away the tears that were beginning to form at the rims of his eyes. “…pretending always makes me think of the man that you would have been…that you are somewhere in Elysium…I hope that I am half of what you could be.” He closed his eyes tightly before turning his chin. “Selene….” His voice broke, and he bit his lip before continuing roughly. “Selene…I don’t know what to say…I don’t know how to explain what I feel…why I feel it….how you can forgive me, or I can forgive myself. I want you…I want you so badly, and you know that I will always love you with all my heart. It will always be you that I am waiting for at the end of my life, but Selene…” his voice softened to a whisper. “I am so alone….If I could promise you that I would never love her as much as you…..” Maximus didn’t finish the sentence. He might lie to Lidia out of necessity, but he could not lie to Selene, or his own conscience, about the way that he felt. If he loved again, it would be with his whole heart. Anything else would be an insult to Selene….”I will promise you that I will never love you any less.” He said, more certain of his words. “We will remember you together, honor you together …. regret….” He sighed, hating the word that life had forced him to speak so much more than his share. “I will always regret the life that we could not share, and I know that we will meet again.”
There was nothing left to say, and Maximus knelt before the altar silently for a long time, trying to settle his thoughts. It would never be over, he realized at last. He would never entirely shed his pain. Selene could no longer give him the permission that he craved. Peace was a gift that he could only give himself. He must make the choice to be happy again, the choice to love.
Feeling resolute, Maximus rose to his feet. As he stood, he felt as if a great burden had slid from his shoulders. For twenty years he had fought the constant sense that he wasn’t sorry enough, didn’t miss his family as he should….and he finally realized that it was time to begin anew.
It was the middle of the night, and the villa was settled in deep slumber, but he could not wait untilmorning. Walking purposefully through the halls, he arrived at Lucilla’s chamber and knocked on the door.
“Yes?” Lucilla answered the door quickly, a look of concern on her face. “What is it? Is Lucius-?”
“He is fine.” Maximus answered, sorry to have startled her. “I…I need your counsel.”
Lucilla looked uncertain for a moment, but noting the urgency on his face, she nodded her head and stepped aside to permit his entry.
“Did you love your husband?” Maximus asked bluntly as he settled into a chair.
“What?” Lucilla looked surprised. She narrowed her eyes. “Lucius?”
“Yes. Lucius. Did you love him?”
Lucilla pressed her lips together and pondered the question, discomfiture plain on her drawn features. “I suppose that I did, after a fashion….sharing a child makes you-”
“Did he love you?”
Lucilla blinked, startled by the interruption. “Yes.” She answered unequivocally. “Very much.”
“Do you think that he would have loved again if you had died?”
Lucilla studied his face intently, her tired mind struggling with the confusing questions. “I…I suppose so. I would have wanted him to….”
“But you never married.”
“No…That wouldn’t have been…. politically expedient- or safe for my son….” Lucilla looked down at her hands, the sharp contours of bones and veins betraying her age. “…but I did love.”
Maximus tilted his head. “Oh?”
“Yes, Maximus. I loved.” The smile that graced her cheeks hinted at the girl that she had been so long ago.
“Some people say that there is only one right person…that the Gods have designed one perfect match for each heart.”
“That is what some people want to believe.”
“But not you?”
Lucilla shook her head. “Life is…change Maximus….I am struck by it. I have seen so many things, so many people, so many places….Every morning we awaken to a thousand different paths that change the course of our lives- of our world- in ways that we could never imagine…Does the dress I wear change the price of shells they use to make purple dye in Tyria? Does that change drive a man out of business? Cause his family to starve? His children to die and never bear the kings of the future?” She shook her head. “There are so many roads, Maximus…if only a handful of men found the one they were truly meant for, they would be lucky….and do you think that the Gods want us to be alone? Mismatched?” She sighed, twisting her rings as she once more observed her aged fingers. “I prefer a kinder view of life, Maximus….Even after…. everything….I believe in love.” Finally, she look up and met his eyes, the sentence she had left unspoken clear for him to see. I thought that I was the one for you, but I was wrong.
Maximus had loved Lucilla too. What if her father had let them marry? Would he ever have known Selene to miss? Lucilla was right, and yet, the answer did not give him the comfort that he had hoped.
“Why?” The expression on the empress’ face changed abruptly as she finally questioned the motive of his query. “Maximus…are you….are you in love again?”
The Spaniard could barely reach her gaze, knowing what he would find there- a question: Is it me?
The man’s face spoke volumes, and Lucilla’s gray complexion darkened, but remained fixed. “Who is she?” She said quietly, valiantly suppressing the strain in her voice.
“I…” Maximus laughed at the realization that he had never asked. “I don’t know….some Lidius’s daughter, I would assume….she works at the palace.”
“Works?” Lucilla’s voice was tainted with the slightest patrician distaste.
“She teaches manners to the princesses.”
“A nobleman’s daughter then?”
“I believe so…one who’s finances are in decline. Have you seen her?” He looked hopeful.
Lucilla shook her head. “I’ve never heard of such a girl, but I will inquire of Lady Severa if you would like…but Maximus, why can’t you find her yourself?”
The soldier confessed what had happened: from their encounter in the garden, to their meeting at the temple and, finally, to the guilt that he was struggling to release. The man was grateful to unburden himself at last.
“I think that Selene would want you to love again,” Lucilla said, when he reached the end of his tale. “She would want you to be happy….You deserve it after so long.”
“You really think so?”
“I know it.” Lucilla smiled sadly.
Maximus had to admit that she had no reason to lie. “Thank you.” he said softly.
“You are welcome.” Lucilla said, rising from her seat. “And now, if you please, I would like to sleep. I will help you locate your Lidia in the morning, all right?”
Maximus nodded his head and walked toward the door, certain that he could finally sleep at last.
In spite of staying up so late, Maximus awoke before dawn and went to stand on the road that led to the palace. He ignored the annoyed stares of the Praetorians who lingered there. Although they had come to recognize him from the many times that he accompanied Lucius to the palace, they did not like his loitering around.
When the sun climbed to the center of the sky, the Spaniard grudgingly admitted that she was not going to come, and hurried home to see if Lucilla had located any leads.
True to her word, the former empress had called on Septimus Severus’ wife- but she had no hope to offer her guest. “I am sorry.” She said, “Lady Severa does not know who you are talking about. She doesn’t bother very much with her daughters’ education, but she was certain that there was no governess named Lidia….” Lucilla’s seemed to be holding something back, and so Maximus urged her to continue with a look. “Are you certain that she told you the truth?”
“Well, it is obvious that you are….well off. Perhaps she has a….’different’ occupation and did not want you to think less of her.” It was clear what occupation Lucilla was hinting at, having lived in the palace herself long enough to guess the utility of housing so many pretty young girls in the Imperial residence.
“No.” the Spaniard said, his stomach twisting in agony at the very thought. “She would not have lied. She must use another name.”
Maximus wished that he was as certain as he sounded. But when three more days of fruitless waiting went by, he was began to wonder if Lucilla was right. He keep his mind away from torturing himself too much, he spent more time training with his sword, and running along the waste expanse of the villa garden, returning inside only when he was dripping sweat and his muscles trembled with the fatigue.
Lucius and Lucilla demonstrated to be truly his friends, trying to cheer him up as they could and Maximus’ heart was moved by their efforts.
Even in his state of emotional pain, he did not forget his duty. Lucius’ safety was foremost important for the Spaniard. He spent some of his afternoons surveying Falco’s villa — which stood on the Viminal hill — watching those persons when to visit the Senator, and impressing their faces in its memory, so he could recognize them if they get near to Lucius.
Protecting Lucilla’s son had filled Maximus with a sense of purpose which had been missing from his life for a long time and he was grateful for it, even when his task obliged him to attend the games in the Colosseum.
Lucilla and Lucius had been almost afraid to tell him they had been invited by the emperor to see them, and they had offered him to decline the invitation, but the Spaniard had understood they had to be present because the games were part of the official celebration of Septimius Severus’ older son’s birthday. As much as Maximus resented the gladiatorial fights, even he knew how much the mob liked them and how it was necessary for a ruler to keep the populace happy.
So he went to the Colosseum with Lucius and Lucilla and spent one of his most difficult days in the last twenty years by trying not to notice what was going on in the arena sand and at the same time not to be too distracted because he still had to guard the young senator.
When the games were finally over he was not surprised to find himself emotionally exhausted, his muscles aching for the tension and was grateful for the quiet he found in the villa garden, the smell of jasmine soothing his nerves.
But Lidia’s memory never left Maximus completely and after another week passed without any news about her, he was slowly growing desperate. What had happened to her? Was it possible that she had simply disappeared? Had something happened to her? Was she avoiding him on purpose?
Those troubling questions plagued Maximus’ mind during the day and especially the nights and he berated himself for have not asked her family name or for not having followed her to her home.
Thus so he was grateful when Lucilla came to his chamber one morning and informed him of her latest news, which, luckily was not another invitation to attend the games.
“Well, Maximus.” She said with a smile. “It seems that your rescue at the party has captivated Lady Severa. Lucius and I will be dining with the Imperial Family on Friday, and she begged me to bring ‘that intriguing Spanish gentleman'” Lucilla’s teeth flashed in a grin. “I see you haven’t lost your charm…. perhaps you can use the opportunity to find out where your Lidia has gone off to.”
The prospect of eating dinner at the palace- and questioning the staff on his own about Lidia’s whereabouts- lessened the agony of waiting for news, it did not relieve it entirely. Maximus still slept fitfully, so he was immediately wakened from his sleep one morning by the menacing howls and barks of the dogs.
Distantly, the Spaniard thought he heard a scream and, instantly awake, he sprung from his bed, shrugging a tunic over his head as he hurried down the hall toward the gardens.
A figure, clad in a heavy, shapeless woolen cloak had been penned into the corner by the animals. One of them was biting the intruder’s shoulder, while its hapless victim curled into a tight ball, trying to protect his face and neck from attack.
“Phobos, Deimos” Maximus said darkly. “Relent!” The dogs hesitated, looking back at their master warily before they obeyed. “Stand up!” The former general demanded, taking long strides across the grass. “Reveal yourself.”
Obediantly, the hood of the cloak dropped.
Maximus’ jaw mimicked the motion.
“Lidia….” He said, almost in disbelief. “Lidia, you came back…”
“I didn’t mean to.” The girl stammered, inching toward the garden gate. “I was in a hurry and I-”
“Where are you going?” Maximus said quickly, following her eyes.
“Home. It was dark, and I thought a shortcut would-” The girl continued to babble nervously, and the soldier finally realized that she was nervous. She thought that he didn’t want her there!
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
“Lidia.” Maximus said hoarsely. “I’ve looked for you everywhere.”
“You have?” The girl’s tone betrayed her disbelief.
“Yes, I…. Oh, Lidia, I am so sorry for how I behaved at the temple.” Noting the displeasure on her features, he added quickly. “Not the kiss! – our farewell.” He continued to edge toward her as he spoke. “I wanted to kiss you, I wanted to be with you, but….” He bit his tongue. Was now the time to tell Lidia the truth? No- he needed to earn back her trust, but she did deserve part of the explanation. “I… I am afraid, Lidia.” He looked at his hands, knowing how ridiculous it must seem: He, Maximus, who could face any danger with perfect equanimity, cowering in front of his own emotions. “I haven’t loved in a long time… I want it- but the pain….”
Something in his stilted words connected with the girl, and she silenced him with her finger against his lips. “I know.” She whispered earnestly, “Oh, Marcus, I know exactly how you feel…”
Maximus and Lidia simply stared at each other for a long while. There was so much that they needed to say- that the soldier needed to explain, and Lidia needed to forgive, but to allow the words to spill out would cost too much of their precious time, and so they simply allowed their eyes to communicate, while their arms grasped hungrily for each other. To Maximus’ strained and weary flesh, the woman’s soft warmth was like the rain after a long drought, and he drank her thirstily- first with his skin, and then with his lips, settling them firmly against her own, molding them tightly as he stole her breath.
“Lidia…” He murmured as they finally drew apart. “Never let me be so foolish again… I cannot live without you. I don’t want to live without you…please….”
“I won’t let you go…” She answered soulfully. “Oh, Marcus, I’ve missed you so….”
The appellation called Maximus momentarily to the present again, and he fought another wave of guilt. “Lidia, I am so sorry for what I did. I can see now that it was a mistake…but it was not without reason. I have so many things to tell you…to explain.”
“Not now.” The girl answered, leaning forward. Maximus tried to stop her- to insist that she give him leave to finally explain his true nature. To tell her of Selene, and of his past…but he still dreaded the confession, and Lidia’s coaxing was all that he needed to settle his mind to save the truth for another time.
Over the next week, Lidia and Maximus met often. Although the time they had spent together was short, the Spaniard could not deny that he was in love. Utterly, hopelessly, completely. He slept each night with the memory of her kisses on his lips, and woke each morning, burning with desire kindled by dreams of passion.
When would those dreams become a reality? The embraces that the lovers shared were fiery, but controlled. The public places in which they met required nothing less….and Lidia still avoided inviting him to her domus.
The mystery troubled the general. The thought that a being as sweet-tempered and open as Lidia should have something to hide seemed unthinkable- and yet each tentative query regarding her father, or her home was cleverly diverted or pointedly ignored. His desire for information was more than idle curiosity: he had decided that he wanted to marry her.
Maximus could not pinpoint the moment when he had made his decision. With Selene, marriage had been the natural end of a long, traditional courtship initiated, coddled, and directed by their families. From their first kiss, he had known that they had been destined for each other’s beds and hearts…had known that Selene would bear his children, and expected that she would give him comfort in his old age….with Lidia, there were no expectations, only desires- a desire that Maximus know that he could not contain much longer.
Lucilla observed the situation from afar, sometimes catching glimpses of Maximus and Lidia as they strolled together in the garden, hand in hand, their heads bent as they whispered to each other. The old lady was pleased Maximus was loving — and was loved — again, he deserved to be happy again after all he had suffered. A part of her heart wept because she had not been the woman who had brought back the smile on his face, but she understood that too many years had passed since the last time they had kissed for the fire between her and Maximus to be ignited again. Maybe if he had returned to Rome sooner….Lucilla pushed the thought away, knowing it was pointless to cry over spilled milk. She still had Maximus’ friendship, which, considering their past, was a great, wonderful gift. And because he was her friend she could not help to wonder what his life with Lidia would be like. He was immortal and she was not. He would not age but she would become old…..and one day die. Lucilla shivered at the thought, as she suddenly realized Maximus’ pains were far from finished.
At last, the night of the dinner invitation arrived. Maximus took extra care with his dress. Although he no longer needed the interview with the palace staff to learn of Lidia’s whereabouts, he hoped to gain as much information as possible about her family and past.
When they arrived at the Palace, the empress immediately took Maximus by an elbow and to the amused glances of Lucilla and Lucius, dragged him around, telling to all the guests how brilliant and selfless he had been to save his friend from a ferocious group of Moray eels.
She then introduced him to her husband. Lucius Septimius Severus had changed a lot from the time he and Maximus had served together in Moesia but he still was every bit of a soldier — he still preferred to dress with his uniform instead of donning the purple toga of Caesar. Severus was impressed to learn his guest was the son of his former comrade in arms and that, of course, increased the interest the empress had for her guest. However, for Maximus’ great relief, one of the artists she was financing come to present her with his latest work and so the former general returned to his friends.
“Don’t say anything,” he growled as Lucius prepared to make an ironic remark and the young senator contented himself with a hearty laugh.
The dinner with the Imperial family was interminable. Although Lucilla had described the invitation as an “intimate family gathering”, there were more than 20 guests arranged around low tables, all squashed onto brocaded couches in an open courtyard the slightest bit too small to contain them.
Maximus saw at once that his chances to ask about Lidia would not be good- yet another reason to be grateful that he had found her again….
After the meal was served, the party quieted for a few moments. Some of the guests drifted through the public rooms of the palace to chat or stretch their legs, while others excused themselves to private alcoves, ridding themselves of too much food and wine. The emperor and his wife remained on their couches at the head of the table, as if waiting for something. In a few moments, Maximus found out what it was: the children had been brought down from the nursery to bid their parent’s goodnight. The youngest, a son, was cradled in his nurse’s arms. He was held forward to receive a kiss from his mother and father, while the two little girl’s were edged forward by their governess.
Maximus blinked, recognizing at once the familiar height and shape of the woman. It was Lidia…but what was she doing here so late?
The woman carefully observed the little princesses, but when they entered their parents’ embraces, she allowed her eyes to wander.
She saw him.
Maximus felt heat rise to his cheeks as she smiled, and he answered her look with a broad grin of his own, and an encouraging smile.
“I think that little tart likes you.”
Maximus felt his entire body grow cold as the over-loud voice of the man on the couch across from him carried through the silence. The Spaniard groaned.
The man was clearly drunk- barely able to hold his head up from its reclining position-and clearly amused by what he THOUGHT he saw.
“Hey, Sev-RUS.” The man tittered. “Think I can have a go at her when Lady Lucilla’s houseguest is done.”
The Emperor looked between the man and the governess, finally following the accuser’s gaze to Maximus. His face clouded instantly. “What do you think that you are doing?” He bellowed at Lidia.
The girl cowered, too savvy to chance a response.
“Your place is with the servants, not my guests.” By now, his angry voice had captured the attention of almost everyone still seated in the courtyard. “If you desire some ‘entertainment’ tonight, you should seek it in the kitchens and stables, not at my table.” Seeing that the girl still would not answer, he jerked his chin toward the door. “Get out of my sight.”
Lidia moved eagerly to comply. Maximus felt his heart breaking inside as he saw, before she had even slipped into the hallway, the glimmer of tears spilling down her cheeks.
“I will follow her.” Lucilla whispered beside him, aware that the Spaniard himself was still under too much scrutiny to leave.
Maximus nodded his head painfully, and tried to pretend that he was interested in his food, but inside he ached, aware of the pain and humiliation that his own lack of caution had caused.
At last, when he could stand it no longer, Maximus murmured an excuse about needing the facilities and slipped into the hall. He wandered aimlessly, relieved when he finally saw Lucilla’s figure lingering outside a door. “She is inside.” The old lady whispered.
Maximus nodded gratefully. “Thank you.” He said earnestly, knowing how much Lucilla sacrificed her own feelings to assist him.
The former general slipped inside the room- a spare bedchamber sometimes used to house important guests. It reeked of disuse- the air seeming stale and dusty, though the Spaniard knew it must be cleaned and aired out at least once per week.
It was not hard to find Lidia. Even in the shadowed blackness, he was able to follow the sound of her choking sobs toward the center of the room, where she lay splayed across a wide bed.
“Shhh….” Maximus whispered, his voice startling the girl so that she took a sudden intake of breath before she realized who had joined her in the room.
“M-marcus…” She managed between cries. “Wh-What are you doing here?”
“Do you think that I could leave you alone?” He said tenderly, finding her face with his fingertips and tenderly smoothing back her hair. “I am sorry about what happened. You must try to put it out of your mind. Severus is a blow hard. He always has been- the people in there know that.”
“He was right.” Lidia sniffled. “Right about me….I am a servant.”
“You are a teacher.” Maximus contradicted. “A governess….”
“A babysitter….” Lidia insisted miserably. Her body shook once more. “Oh, Marcus, can’t you see…he was right. I am not good enough for you.”
“Nonsense!” The soldier countered. “You are the woman I love. I wouldn’t care if you were the lowliest scullery maid in the palace.”
Lidia’s lips turned into a wry look that he could not see. “You say that because you have never been a servant.”
“How wrong you are.” Maximus swallowed, wondering if he would finally find the courage to tell her the truth. “I was….I was a slave.”
Lidia’s voice was incredulous, and for a heart-stopping moment he thought that she was going to tell him that he wasn’t good enough for HER, but she did not. She simply slipped her arms around his waist and whispered. “How…why….what happened?”
“I was….in the army as I told you…and got….’lost'” Maximus glossed through the early circumstances, promising that he would explain them to her when she was calmer. “I was sold by slavers to fight in the arena.”
“You were a gladiator?” Lidia said in almost shock.
“Yes.” The soldier licked his lips. “Yes, I was. I told you that I had seen the Colosseum.”
“No wonder you were so angry!” Lidia’s voice was regretful. “…and so, after you bought your freedom, you became a bodyguard to men like Senator Verus.”
“Yes.” Maximus agreed, grateful that she had accepted the story so easily. “So, you see…it doesn’t matter to me what you do….you are the woman that I love.”
“Yes.” Maximus laughed at her. “Oh, Lidia, can you really even doubt it? You’ve driven me crazy for nearly a month….I’ve been sleepless the past two nights, wondering how I was ever going to convince you to marry me.”
“M-Marry you?” Lidia was nearly speechless, the Spaniard could sense the wonderment in her voice. “You want..you want to marry me?”
“Yes.” Maximus said forcefully. “As soon as possible.”
“But…” Lidia’s voice died on her lips, and pain seemed to flash through her eyes.
Maximus was confused by the reaction. “Don’t tell me that you are going to say ‘no'” His voice betrayed the sincerity of his fear.
“Of course, I want to marry you.” Lidia said quietly, “But….”
“Afraid of what?”
“Of-” Lidia started to continue, but something stopped her. She closed her lips, and then asked flatly. “Why do you want to marry me?”
“Because I love you.” Maximus stroked her hair gently, peppering her forehead with a gentle kiss.
“Why so soon?”
“Because….” Maximus took a breath, trying to calm his nerves, already excited by her proximity on the broad bed. “…I’m am not a patient man.”
“You know that you wouldn’t have to be a…’patient’…man….” Lidia said softly, the suggestion in her voice made the Spaniard’s heart catch in his throat. He felt all of his blood rush to his face as his nerves sang toward her. As if to underscore her sincerity, the woman drew her hand along the flat plane of his stomach. “I….I wouldn’t make you wait.”
“…but I will make myself wait.” The words were almost a groan as Maximus forced them from his lips. “I want all of you, Lidia. I’m tired of holding back.”
Laying on the bed next to her lover, Lidia’s head was spinning with excitement- and with fear. Was Marcus telling the truth? He wanted to marry her? He loved her as much as she loved him? It seemed impossible, too good to be true…and yet….Lidia tried to calm her mind and think about what she should do.
“We could do it tonight.” The man whispered so close to her ear that his breath tickled her skin. “I could go to your father and-”
“No!” Lidia yelped the word, sitting straight up on her bed. He couldn’t meet her father…if he knew who she was then the romance would be over, no matter how noble Marcus Decimus pretended to be. Her heart had been broken one time before by a man unwilling to sully himself with connection to her family. She would rather have a piece of Marcus, be his lover, than to be left again with nothing at all.
“My father would never consent.” She said quickly. “He…he is too sick…he’s senile and….”
The soldier’s face folded in concern. “Why didn’t you tell me before, Lidia…I was under the impression that the hospital was helping him…does he need a better doctor, does not he?”
“No.” Lidia said quickly. “He is just old and tired…it would..upset him if he thought I were with a man.”
“Do you have a tutor?”
Lidia swallowed as her lies became uncomfortably close- her suitor was well aware that an unmarried woman would have to have some sort of guardian capable of managing her affairs.
“No. I…no one knows how bad he is except for me, and I -I don’t have the heart to tell them. He’s so proud and….” She chattered mindlessly, her heart hammering with the fear that her untruths would be exposed. “Lidia.” Maximus silenced her with a finger against her lips. “Do you want to marry me?” He said slowly.
Lidia’s eyes glistened with fresh tears. “Yes.” She said with all her heart. “But-”
The finger pressed down on her lips again, holding them still. “Then you shall- tonight. If you father is too ill to give consent, then he is too ill to withdraw it and make us divorce. Come.” In the shadows, Lidia felt the soldier’s hand snake along her side until he found her wrist and pulled her up from the bed. “Master Verus will draw up the papers…and he can witness the act. I love you Lidia…I’ve seen too much in life to waste time in excuses. Please come.”
Lidia stood obediently, but inside her heart felt as though it was being ripped apart. Her father wasn’t senile. She wanted Marcus so badly, wanted him so much that it hurt…but what would he do when he learned the truth?
The same thing that they all did. Lidia acknowledged. If she went with him now, she would only be prolonging the inevitable…oh, but the happy moments she would have. She could live on the memories alone!
Feeling doom hang around her shoulders like a shawl, she followed Marcus out the door.
His fiancé looked up from her seat at the sound of his voice, her eyes wide and almost frightened.
Maximus smiled at her reassuringly. She looked so lovely, sitting there in a dress and jewels that Lucilla had been so kind as to loan her. He reached forward to stroke her cheek. “Lucius is ready.”
Lidia nodded and rose unsteadily to her feet, grateful for the support of his arm. Together, they walked to the tablinium where the former empress, and her son, were seated.
“This woman is my wife.” Maximus said simply to Lucius, and his steward- a man who, though formerly a slave, had bought his freedom and earned the citizenship, qualifying him to witness official acts. There was no ceremony, no formulaic words…merely acknowledgment by a free man that he had claimed a woman of his own. The rest: the banquets and recitations and breaking of bread- were a show that the wealthy put on for their friends.
“Congratulations.” The Senator said sleepily. Then he selected a pen from his desk and scrawled his name across the bottom of a piece of parchment, indicating that the steward should do the same, and finally offering it to Maximus.
Lidia didn’t even read the paper as it was slid across the table- barely believing what had happened, and knowing in her heart that it was only a temporary state…the procedure for divorce was just as simple, and she had no doubts that her lover- her husband- would carry them out as soon as he learned the truth about her family. She watched as he scrawled his name across the page in a single broad stroke, and then melted as he took her hand to lead her away- to lead her to his bed.
Maximus awoke very early, disoriented at first to find Lidia’s small body curled beside him in the bed.
In the early morning light, her pale skin shone like the smooth surface of a pearl. The Spaniard reached out to caress it gently, running his hand along the bare curve of her shoulder, down her arm, along her side, and finally to her hip before pulling her tighter against his chest. He inhaled her scent deeply, reveling in his sense of possession.
He had suspected, or perhaps merely feared that he would wake up to regrets, that the ecstasy of the night before would remind him of the sorrow that had brought him here, but it had not. The peace he felt was like the freshness of a new fallen rain: clean, energized and renewed.
He turned to his side and leaned forward, nuzzling Lidia’s shoulder to coax her awake, wincing as she returned to consciousness with a jolt, momentarily disoriented.
“Home.” Maximus whispered, tenderly stroking her hair. “Do you remember?”
“Yes.” Lidia’s face flushed, and the man grinned, recalling the night before. He had been surprised, but ultimately pleased, to learn that Lidia was no innocent maid. She had known how to please him-and to tell him what she wanted as well, and he had found the experience very satisfying. Memories of their passion rekindling his need, he let his hand wander down her stomach to the soft curls between her thighs.
“Good morning,” he murmured in a low voice.
Lidia sighed deeply, tilting her head against his shoulder as she arched her bottom against his hips……..and then she sat up sharply.
Maximus’ brows knit in confusion, not knowing what to make of the sudden exclamation. “What?”
“Tata!” Lidia said again, skittering out of bed as he helplessly watched her go.
“Oh, Marcus- he probably waited for me all night. I told him I was going to be at the palace, but he was expecting one of the slaves to bring me home, and….”
“Calm down.” Maximus said firmly. “I am sure that it is all right.”
“No, it isn’t.” Grasping at the floor, Lidia found her tunica and shrugged it over her shoulders, raking her fingers through the tangle of brown-gold curls as she tried to dress. “I have to go, I have to go now.”
“I’ll take you.” The Spaniard said with a sigh, rising from bed.
“No!” Lidia’s eyes flashed with terror. “I mean…I…he was expecting a slave.”
“What would make him think that I wasn’t a slave?”
There was no way out.
Lidia realized, with a growing sense of helplessness, that her lies had finally trapped her. She could either allow Marcus to accompany her home, and know at last the infamy of her family’s name…or she would have to manufacture yet another reason to ward him away.
She wanted, desperately, to choose the latter option…but no excuses came to mind, and so she was forced to nod her head.
“Shall we call the litter?” Maximus asked gently when he had finally dressed. Though he was ostensibly posing as a palace slave, he had donned a very neat, finely woven tunica and leather belt- as though he were subconsciously trying to prove his worth to the father-in-law that he would meet for the first time.
“No.” Lidia replied in a very small voice. “We shall walk. It is very close.”
Maximus arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Close?” Where could Lidia live within an easy distance to the Palatine?
Keeping his thoughts to himself, the former general nodded and followed his wife though the deserted hallways of the villa and then out onto the streets.
It was still very early, but around them the city was coming to life. Market wares, unloaded from wagons that were only allowed on the streets at night, were being unpacked and arrayed in alluring displays, grim-faced children, toting their little wax tablets and stylii were trudging off toward school, and early-rising housewives were taking advantage of the early morning sunshine to hang their washing out to dry. The soldier barely had time to notice these things as Lidia hurried through the alleys that wound through the affluent neighborhood.
Long before he expected it, Maximus’ new wife came to a stop in front of a nondescript stone wall. A simple wooden door stood in the middle.
“Here we are,” Lidia said quickly. “You needn’t wait for me. I will tell tata that I am needed in the palace again and…”
“Lidia.” Maximus took her small hands in her own. “How long can we live that way? You are my wife. We belong together…and besides, your father is not capable of stopping us. I would really prefer to meet the man and get to know him…” He tilted his head in concern when she still did not acquiesce. “Are you ashamed of me?”
“No!” Lidia’s eyes widened. “Oh, Marcus, of course not…I…I…” She struggled to find the words that she wanted to say. “It is quite the opposite…I am…ashamed of my father.” Her voice was very small. “He used to be such a proud man! So…powerful and commanding, and now…” Her voice trailed off sadly. “He is a shell.” Lidia looked from her husband to the door, and then she stepped forward, pushing it open without knocking or attempting to summon a slave – giving Maximus the impression that there weren’t any.
“Tata?” She called nervously into the house.
The former general followed his wife into the decaying manor, trying not to notice the ragged furnishing and thin layer of dust that, without the aid of servants, accumulated quickly.
There was silence for a moment, and then. “Clara? Lidia Clara is that you?”
Maximus felt a sudden wave of misgiving. Clara. Clarus. He knew the name…
“Clara?” The voice, clearly belonging to a worried father, moved closer, until at last the old man appeared between a set of moth-eaten curtains.
Maximus felt as though he had been punched in the stomach, and it was all that he could do to stand as his eyes drank in the man who stood before him. He was very thin, with clear eyes, sunken cheeks and gray hair. And in the middle of his forehead he sported a ridged scar, now even more prominent on his white, ill complexion. The two men stared at each other for long interminable moments and then the older one broke the silence.
“Maximus?” Lidia’s father said, his voice wavering with shock.
The Spaniard nodded, too stunned to formulate a lie.
Lidia looked between the two men, trying to understand what was going on. Did they know each other? Was it possible? Her father rarely left their home, and Marcus had not been in Rome for long… “Tata, this is Marcus. ” Lidia said slowly. “He…he escorted me home.”
“No, Clara. He is not.” Quintus’s skin looked ashen, but his eyes were beginning to burn in challenge. “He is Maximus Decimus Meridas….the ‘Savior of Rome’.”
Lidia felt her skin grow very cold. Maximus Decimus Meridas. So, that was the reason the name had seemed so familiar. Was it really possible that this man… that her husband could really be the son of the man who had brought her family’s ruin? The girl’s jaw dropped in horror, and she simply stared, warring within her heart between the man who had given her life, and the man who had given her a reason to live.
The two men had retained eye contact, at last, the woman’s husband broke it, favoring her with a regretful gaze. “No…” He swallowed. “Maximus.”
Lidia’s face contracted in confusion. “What are you talking about, what do you mean? You said that your name was Marcus, you-” She shook her head in near hysteria. “You can’t be his son.”
“I am not his son.” Maximus said slowly. “I am him.”
“I lied, Lidia.” The former general swallowed heavily, the weight of the words crushing him with remorse.
Lidia’s lip began to tremble, and he fought the urge to caress it reassuringly. “H-how?” She asked in wavering tones. “Maximus Decimus Meridas is dead…. you…” She turned to her father, silent until now. “You saw him….I saw him. I remember…I was very small, but….”
“I don’t know how.” Maximus replied honestly. “I thought I was dead, but I woke up, and ….”
“What are you?” Lidia’s voice was panicked, and she edged toward her father for protection. “What do you want with us?”
“Us?” Maximus repeated, not understanding.
“Haven’t you done enough?” Lidia’s eyes filled with tears. “Your father…. you, DESTROYED our family…” She looked with disgust at the crumbling villa.
The immortal’s mouth hung open, not knowing what to say. What did she mean?
“Maximus.” It was Quintus who spoke now, his voice the calmest of the trio. “What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“I want…” the Spaniard’s voice was suddenly very rough. He looked painfully at Lidia, wanting her to explain. “You…” he mouthed, but the woman simply turned away.
“Go.” She said in a small voice. “And do not return.”
“Burn that papyrus to ashes. It has no other use than lighting a lamp. …There are too many lies on both parts.” Lidia did not turn as she pronounced the words with a low but still firm voice.
Maximus watched her back for several seconds, then took a couple of deep breaths, nodded to Quintus and whispered, “Goodbye Lidia.”
His head bowed he turned on his heels and walked away.
Quintus stayed silent until he heard the door close and then looked to his daughter. Even in the dimly light of the room he could see her shoulders were shaking badly and soon choked sobs began to leave her lips.
The old man’s heart constricted with worry and pain, and he turned Lidia to face him, before hugging her to his chest as she cried helplessly.
“Shhh, darling,” he whispered stroking hair, “It will be all right. Shhh….”
Lidia raised her tear-streaken face and looked at his father, “No, tata….It won’t be ‘all right’….I have lost him…”
“Lost him?” Quintus enquired, wondering what was going on between her daughter and Maximus, but the girl did not answered, burying again her face in his shoulder and crying out all of her pain.
It was a rainy afternoon and Lucilla thought that the gray sky and the chilling air were an appropriate scenario for the heavy atmosphere which reigned in the villa.
As she crossed the perystilium to the kitchen to give new orders to the cook, she threw a look to the arcate surrounding the inner courtyard and saw that Maximus was still sitting on the stone bench where she had first spotted him hours before. He seemed to have not moved in all that time, and he was still staring in front of him, uncaring of the water which sometimes fell on him from the roof. The old lady sighed. She wanted to help him but what she could say? When she had first heard the true identity of Maximus’ new wife and what had happened in her home, Lucilla had been shocked and then enraged. Enraged with the fate and destiny. Why did they keep on tormenting Maximus? Why could not they grant him some peace? Give him some happiness and make it last for more than few hours? Lucilla sighed again and stole another look at Maximus … He was so proud and strong and yet so emotionally frail, clinging to his job of protecting Lucius as an anchor in the storming sea of his existence. Lucilla hated to think what might happen to him when his task was completed….
She was still wondering when she heard a loud bang on the wooden doors of the villa, followed by the steps of the servant who went to open it.
Few seconds later the slave appeared on the perystilium followed but an old man wearing a clean but very worn toga with the ordo equestor stripe on its hem. She squinted her eyes to see his face but his head was in the shadows.
“Domina, this man is here to see master Maximus.” said the steward.
Maximus…not Marcus. Thought Lucilla with surprise. Only the trusted members of her household knew her guest’s true name…So who was the newcomer? The lady stepped near him and gasped when she finally recognized him. Time had not been kind to him, but there was no doubt, the man in front of her was Quintus Clarus.
“General,” she said.
“My lady Lucilla.” the former Praetorian stared at her for several seconds and then added, “May I speak with Maximus? It is important.”
Unconsciously Lucilla turned to look at the porch, and Quintus followed her gaze to rest on the Spaniard’s broad back.
“Yes, I think you two need to talk. But remember I won’t tolerate a fight in my house.”
Quintus nodded, “Yes, domina. I have no intention of starting a fight… I am here to try to put the things right.”
“Good. Now go to him and try to coax him inside, he had already taken enough cold.” And speaking thus Lucilla left the room, followed by the steward.
Quintus waited until he was alone and then walked to where Maximus was staying. His emotion upon seeing again the young form of his former commander and friend was almost overwhelming. He could barely believe that man was Maximus but…. he was. Lucilla had confirmed it and she knew the Spaniard better than anyone still alive.
The former Praetorian took another step and stopped just behind Maximus, noticing how he was smoothing — no, stroking — a piece of written papyrus.
“Is it the one Lidia told you to burn? Your marriage contract?” he asked quietly, but in the stillness of the house his voice resounded loud as a thunder.
“Quintus!” Maximus almost jumped on his feet and turned to look at him, a stunned look on his tanned face. “What are you doing here?”
“We need to talk…. and not just about Lidia,” the older man added with the same calm of before.
The Spaniard nodded, “You are right, we need to.”
“Can we go inside? This climate is no good for my bones….not everyone is so lucky as to remain young and strong as you are.” Quintus smiled slightly and Maximus briefly imitated him.
“Come,” he said, “we will go in the tablinium.” And he began to move, showing the way to the other man.
Once inside, Maximus offered Quintus a chair and then sat in front of him.
“Do you want some wine?” he asked.
“No, thank you.” The older man was tense.
Silence fell in the small room and for several, long moments the two men stared at each other until the Spaniard said, “I think you deserve an explanation about my true nature.”
Quintus nodded and then listened with attention as Maximus told him everything, from his collapse in the Colosseum, to his arrival in Rome; from the way he had saved Lucius’ life to his meeting with Lidia and their following marriage. Quintus studied his face closely as he spoke, trying to gauge his true feelings and liking what he was seeing.
In the end Maximus stopped talking and the older man commented. “I believe you. It is an extraordinary story, but I see it is true.”
Maximus smiled briefly, “Thank you.”
“So,” Quintus took a deep breath before going on, “You truly love my daughter.” It was not really a question but Maximus answered to it anyway.
“Yes, I truly love Lidia. She had brought me the happiness I thought was forever lost with Selene’s and Marcus’ death…. I… She is the most important person in my life.” Maximus turned his head away, overwhelmed by emotion and added, “And now she hates me….”
“No, she does not hate you. She loves you very much,” said Quintus softly.
“Really?” Maximus’ voice was hopeful.
“Yes, but she is very confused. ”
“Did she tell you about me?”
“We had a long talk yesterday. May I know why you did not tell her who you are?”
“Would she have believed me if I told her I am immortal? I don’t think so. You, Lucilla and Lucius know I am Maximus Decimus Meridas because you knew me years ago, but how can I explain that to Lidia? She would have taken me as a mad man.”
“So you did not wanted to ever tell her?” Quintus’ voice was a bit hard.
“No, I intended to tell her… but I needed to gain her total trust. I needed her to know me better. Quintus, you heard how quickly we fell for each other…. there was no time to prepare her.”
The older man stared at him for several seconds than nodded. “I know. You are still the honorable man you have always been.” He sighed before adding, “So I suppose it is now my turn to tell you why Lidia is so angry with you.”
“Yes, please tell me. Why did she say I destroyed your family? How could I have done it? What did I do?”
“You woke my conscience again,” answered Quintus cryptically.
“Do you remember your final fight with Commodus?”
“How can I forget it?”
“Do you remember when Commodus asked for a sword but I not allowed my men to give him one?”
“Yes… I never had the time to say thank you.” Maximus commented. “But I can do it now.”
“There is no need. I did what I had to do. You had opened my eyes, and I saw what a monster Commodus really was. I thought that serving him meant to serve Rome, but he was destroying the Urbe and everything his father had ever done. So I decided to serve Rome again and to help you to kill him. Unfortunately my change of alliance was too late: I was not able to save you and the people thought I did it only to save my own life and give me a way to jump on the winning horse, meaning to ally myself with the Senate, the new ruler of the Empire. That was not true, but having changed my loyalties twice there was no way I could convince them….and perhaps I deserved it as punishment for everything I did to you.”
“Quintus…” Maximus started but the older man stopped him, raising his hand.
“Please let me finish. I was pushed aside both from the political class and the military one and then, when the attempt to restore the republic failed and the Pretorians began to rule, selling the throne to the highest bidder, I was ostracized from them too, because I betrayed Commodus.” Quintus shook his head, “The life of my family changed radically. First it was the clientes no longer coming to ask for favors. Then the invitations to the social gatherings stopped arriving. Then my family trading company encountered financial troubles and no banker was willing to help me and so I was forced to sell many of my lands to cover the debts. What remains now is barely able to buy our food and cover the taxes….” the old man’s voice died.
“I am sorry Quintus, I-” Maximus did not really know what to say. He fully admitted to himself Quintus’ betrayal had broken his heart twenty years before, but that was the past. A lot of water had passed under the bridges, and he could only feel pity for the man sitting in front of him, but he knew Quintus was still to proud to accept words of comfort.
As if he was reading his mind, the former prefect said, “You must not be sorry, it was not your fault and I fully deserved what happened to me. But it breaks my heart to know Lidia is paying the price of my mistakes. She would deserve to be treated like a princess and is instead obliged to be a servant. And it is not the worst which happened to her because of me….”
“What?” Maximus sat up a bit straighter.
“Six years ago – she was nineteen — she met a man, a rich merchant coming from Sicily, and they fell in love. Or at least Lidia did. They were going to marry but when the man became aware of my story, he left Lidia, just few days before the ceremony, because he did not want to sully himself with the daughter of a traitor. Needless to say, Lidia was devastated. For several days I never let her out of my sight, I was afraid she could commit an irreparable act. But she is strong and recovered, even if the wound never healed. That’s way she did not want you to meet me, she was afraid it would happen again.”
“It won’t happen again, I swear it.”
“I know. And I will try to help you two to make peace.”
“So you are not angry we married?”
“Of course not. I am only sad I was not there to attend the ceremony, but I understand why Lidia chose to act as she did. As for you, Maximus, you are the kind of man every father would wish for his daughter.” Quintus laughed as the Spaniard blushed and the two men exchanged a glance of complicity, as if everything had happened between them had suddenly disappeared. They both loved Lidia and that was a powerful connection.
Quintus patted the younger man’s knee and added, “Everything will be all right, don’t worry.” Maximus nodded mutely and his father in law — how strange was to think of Quintus in that way! — went on, “And now, I would like very much some wine.”
“Of course!” Maximus clapped his hands and a servant appeared.
“How can I serve you, domine?”
“Please bring us some hot wine and something to eat with it.”
The slave went away and returned few minutes later carrying a tray with two silver cups and a plate of biscuits. He put everything on the table and left again.
Maximus and Quintus spent the next minutes drinking and eating, then the older man asked, “May know what is going on with young Lucius? Do you know who is attempting to take his life?”
“I suspect of the Preatorians’ commander, Aelius Falco.” And Maximus proceeded to explain why he was thinking so.
When he stopped talking, Quintus shook his head and commented, “If it is him, you will have a lot to do to catch him. He is a cunning snake, just like his father.”
“I know, I met both of them after a Senate meeting.”
“I would like to help you to trap him.”
“What?” Maximus shook his head in earnest, “It is too dangerous Quintus…your health..”
“My health be damned! I can help you…I want to help you.” The older man’s eyes shone as he scooted forward on his chair and in them the Spaniard read many emotions: excitement, search for a sense of purpose, desire of redemption…And he understood he could not say ‘no’ to him.
“All right, I am accepting your help. How do you propose to do so?”
Quintus Clarus looked at the uphill road in front of him and set his lips in a hard line. Just few hundred yards, and he would be home. And that was good since he was exhausted. A lot of time had passed since the last time he had walked so much. But, in spite of his fatigue, he was feeling very well, his illness forgotten. Helping Maximus, even if he could not do a lot, was making him feel better than he had been in a long time.
Maximus, he thought, what an extraordinary fate the Gods had reserved for him! The old man briefly wondered about how could be his life…being immortal…not aging….and then stopped, suddenly realizing he did not envy the Spaniard….He pitied him. But it was a consolation for him as a father to know that Lidia would never be alone, that Maximus would be always near her for all her life…The former Praetorian had no doubts his daughter and her husband were made for each other, as strange as it was to think of his former commander as his son-in-law, and he hoped Lidia would soon realize it. She could be stubborn as a mule when she wanted to be so, but he could not really begrudge that to her, since it was a trait she had inherited from him.
Thinking about Lidia’s temper made Quintus quicken his step. She did not know he had gone out alone, and he wanted to be back before she returned from the Palace. He also knew Maximus might come to visit him to discuss Falco, and he wanted to be there when the Spaniard and Lidia met again, to act as a peace-maker before they told to each other words they might regret…..
Maximus swallowed as he stepped into the courtyard of the villa. The memories of the last time that he had been there- the terrible day that he had lost Lidia- were still fresh in his mind. He reached into his pocket, feeling the brittle edge of the parchment that bound their lives together and that it was so precious to him that he carried it everywhere, then pulling his hand away as tears stung at his eyes. He didn’t have time to think of that right now. He had business to do. He would concentrate on saving Lucius, and hope that his focus could push away the pain a little longer.
“Quintus!” He called into the deserted arcade. “Quintus, are you here?”
Maximus’ eyes narrowed with worry when he received no response. He remembered, very well, Lidia’s statements when they had first met that her father did not leave the villa alone- and Maximus also recalled the stubborn determination of the man he had once known. He hoped that age had given General Clarus at least enough wisdom not to poke around the Praetorian headquarters alone.
“Quintus!” He called again, this time a little more urgently as he stepped forward into the tall grass that obscured the once tended gardens.
“What are you doing here?”
The voice that hissed behind his ear caused Maximus’ head to spin, and he felt his heart begin to hammer when they recognized the small, finely turned features of Lidia.
“I’m… I’m looking for your father.” the Spaniard whispered, shrinking beneath the anger in her gaze at the same time his heart rejoiced to finally see her at last.
“I told you to leave him alone.”
“Our business doesn’t concern me.”
“It does.” Lidia said firmly. “It always has.”
The pair locked eyes, and Maximus felt himself caught in a battle of wills.
She wanted him to leave. He wanted to please her…but he also wanted to bask in her presence a few more moments, even if in anger….
“Lidia…” he began softly.
“Clara.” She corrected him firmly. “Only my friends call me by my given name.”
Maximus’ sad teal eyes peered into her own imploringly. “…and your husband?”
Lidia blinked, taking a step back. “You haven’t done it yet then?” She said, the disinterest in her voice sounding forced.
“No. I have no intention of divorcing you, Lidia.”
“But my father-”
“- has no intention of meddling in my domestic affairs.”
Quintus’ daughter stepped forward, her eyes challenging. “I want you to do it.” She insisted.
Lidia swallowed and continued to stare, the anger that his presence had aroused tinting her features to a beauty that threatened to break the former general’s heart. He held his breath, and even his pulse seemed to slow as if time itself had stopped to wait and see what she would answer.
“Yes.” She seethed.
And then she kissed him.
The touch that found the Spaniard’s lips was angry and possessive, seeped in a passion that instantly set his nerves afire. He moaned as her mouth pressed punishingly against his own, and then parted, deepening the embrace as if she wanted to brand him forever with her touch.
Then she was pulling away….
Maximus clamped his arms around her sides, ignoring her protests as she tried to wrench away. She had played with fire, and now she would face the consequences. He wouldn’t let her get away so easily…not without knowing what she had done to him…what she did to him still….
“Lidia…” he said in a shuddering breath, and then he drew her to him again, sliding his tongue across her jawbone before reaching her parted lips. With his broad palm, he pressed her bottom to his hips, demonstrating his already wakening desire as his kisses stole her breath.
She fought him, pummeling his shoulders with blows backed by strength of her fury, but not the will of her heart. Maximus did not relent, holding her motionless with his superior strength as he coaxed away her will to run.
Sensing her steady somewhat, Maximus removed one of his hands from her back, lifting it upwards to stroke the smooth curves of her breasts through the filmy fabric of her dress. She bucked again as his fingertips found the tiny bud of her nipple and rolled it between his forefinger and thumb, sending a shudder along her spine.
“Tell me,” he growled, pulling away at last, “tell me that you want me to go away.”
“I…I want you to…” Lidia began breathlessly, her gray eyes were smoldering from a passion born equally in anger and need. “I want you….”
She didn’t try to continue speaking. Her hands, trembling with need, clawed for his tunica, ripping at its collar as she burrowed for his skin. Her frenzy only excited Maximus further, as his own deft fingers rose to her assistance, tugging the cloth over his head in a single motion, before grasping her shoulder and dragging her with him to the ground.
Ribbons. Why were there so many damn ribbons? Maximus groaned in frustration as his hands seemed suddenly too clumsy to unfasten the slender silken strips that held Lidia’s girdle and tunica in place. His wife’s trembling hands were of no assistance, and her bucking hips, grinding insistently against his aroused flesh, only sapped his patience. With a final cry of surrender, he tore the bindings loose, tossing them aside and slicing through the gauzy dress to claim her skin.
Sighing her name, he bent forward to kiss her bare shoulder, cupping her breasts once more in his palms as he bent over her body.
“Now…” Lidia demanded beside his ear. “Now Maximus….”
The Spaniard’s muscles tightened, squeezing the woman’s flesh in reaction as her own slender fingertips found his manhood, circling it lightly with her middle finger and thumb, sliding her index finger across the throbbing tip.
“Now…” she demanded again.
The former general was shocked by her strength as she forced him to his side, and then to his back, so that he was lying prone in the soft, untended grass. Her touch was abandoned for a moment, and he felt a shiver of regret, instinctively reaching forward to draw her back. Lidia’s hands once more lighted on his thighs, she massaged them in languid circles with her knuckles before moving once more toward his center. She slid one knee between her own, lowering herself so that her legs hugged his own. The Spaniard lifted his knee, placing gentle pressure against her core. The slickness of her body covered him as she accepted the tender caress, rocking her hips forward to grind their bodies together as she continued to gratify his own needy manhood.
Gods, he wanted her. Maximus felt like he was starving for her touch, and, wanting more, he bent forward, abandoning one breast to slid his forefinger beneath the soft brown curls of her lower body to seize the sensitive bundle of nerves that guarded her opening.
“Maximus.” Lidia breathed through clenched teeth. He was surprised to feel her pushing him away, pinning his shoulders to the ground, but understanding returned as she shifted her weight to straddle his hips.
“Be still.” She commanded, as his body bent forward to invert their positions. She raked her fingernails harshly against his side and Maximus bit his lip, feeling almost helpless beneath Lidia’s predatory gaze. He had the physical strength to contradict her, but not the will…she had bewitched him, and if he couldn’t win her back, he knew he would be doomed to pass the rest of his life in regret.
“Please….” He begged, rolling his hips forward so that the head of his arousal grazed the skin of her belly. “You know that you want me…”
“I want this.” Lidia said, in the same instant that she lowered her hips, drawing him into her body.
For a moment, they both lay still, breathless at the electricity of their joining, but then the woman began to rock her hips, not bothering to begin slowly-giving free reign to her lust as she savagely claimed him as her own.
“Lidia.” Her name was the only word that he could bring to his addled mind, and he said it again and again, faster as his body built to its climax. He opened his eyes, wanting watch her face, wanting to share her completion…”Lidia, you are so…”
Her hands covered his nose and mouth, silencing him completely, inadvertently closing off his airways. His body reacted instinctively, adrenaline coursing along his spine and, as he turned his head to free himself, the added stimulation pushed him finally over the edge.
“No…” Lidia cried petulantly as she felt the beginning of his climax. “Not yet…not yet….” but her protests were drowned in a moan as she reached her own orgasm. She rocked back on her heels, her eyes tightly shut against further stimulation as their bodies pulsed and glowed together, his hot seed mingling with the juices of her body as her tight sheath shimmered around him.
“Domina…” He drug her forward against his chest, her weak and passion-spent body offering no resistance to the well-muscled biceps that pressed her forward. “Oh, Lidia…” He placed a gentle kiss in the center of her forehead and waited for his breathing to slow.
At last, the woman met his eyes, her own gray orbs wide and soft. She trailed her fingertip across the rough stubble of his cheek. “I hate you.” She whispered tenderly.
“It is really so?” he asked with the same tone.
“Yes….so much that I want to spend the rest of my life with you…”
Maximus answered only with his eyes, pouring into hers all the remorse that he could not find the words to offer…all the sorrow and the pleading that he could muster.
Lidia blinked her eyes, glittering tears clinging to the long lashes as she pondered what to do.
“Please….forgive me..” the Spaniard whispered, raising his hand to stroke her cheek.
“Yes.” Lidia’s word came out of her mouth in the form of a sob, and the former general crushed her to his chest, rubbing her back in small circles, comforting her as though she were a small child.
“I love you…” He breathed against her ear. “I love you so much. I will make it up to you Lidia …and to your father, everything….just….”
“Shhhhh….” Lidia said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Kiss me.”
Eagerly, the soldier did as he was bidden, claiming her bruised lips with his own. Lidia sighed beneath his mouth, pushing her hands beneath his shoulders to tighten their embrace.
Maximus reacted to the motion by flicking his tongue teasingly against her mouth, urging it to open to him. His wife complied, and he deepened his explorations, making a low sound in the back of his throat as his body reacted to her once more…..
Quintus’ voice was so close that both husband and wife jumped with a start.
The pair scrambled for their clothes, trying to be as silent as possible, but Lidia could not suppress a cry of displeasure as she found the tattered ribbons of her dress.
“Be still…” Maximus whispered, hastily tucking the loincloth around his hips. “Perhaps he will go back into the house….”
Even without turning around, Maximus knew from the shock in his old friend’s voice that they had been discovered. The old man took a sharp intake of breath and, beside him, the Spaniard could hear his bride scrambling to drape the ruins of her gown across the exposed surface of her flesh.
“Tata?” Lidia said in a small voice.
Quintus features flushed almost purple. He mumbled something incomprehensible under his breath. Then, with a sharp turn of his heel, darted away.
Lidia’s face flashed with concern.
“Don’t worry. ” Maximus reassured her. “I will…. explain.”
The woman nodded as her husband pulled his tunic over his head and hurried after her father into the house.
Quintus rushed away from the garden and went into the kitchen, where he poured himself a full cup of honeyed wine before dropping on the nearest chair, still shocked by what he had seen.
When, opening the villa door he had noticed it was unlocked, he had immediately surmised Lidia had already returned from the Palace, and he had prepared to have her reprimand him because he had gone out alone. He had been surprised when she had not come to greet him and thus he had looked for her….but he had never thought find her naked beside an equally undressed Maximus. Quintus sipped more of his wine, to regain a bit of his composure. It had been more than evident what they had been doing in the garden and at that thought, a slow smile crept on his lips: it seemed things had greatly improved between Lidia and Maximus.
“Quintus?” The Spaniard’s voice sounded a bit strange to his ears and when he raised his eyes to look at him, he saw that the younger man’s face was flushed red and he seemed hesitant…Maximus hesitant? That was a first! Quintus’ smile became a grin and he said, “Come inside, Maximus, I am not angry, merely …. surprised.”
“Hell, shocked! Never in my wildest dreams I imagined to find such a sight!”
“I am sorry…I…we…got carried away…”
“I surmised it…The collar of your tunic is torn….”
“Oh.” Maximus’ hand unconsciously moved to cover the tear.
The older man shook his head, “Don’t worry, as I told before, I am not angry. Instead I am happy to see thing are better between you and Lidia.”
The Spaniard’s face enlarged in a wide smile, “Everything is all right again.”
“Good!” Quintus smiled then he suddenly returned serious and said, “Sit down with me, I have something to tell you.” Maximus did as he was told and Lidia’s father continued, “I met Falco today..”
“What? Don’t tell me you went to the Praetorians’ barracks alone!”
“No, I did not go there, but I spent the morning in a popina near them, a place which is attended mainly by Praetorians, both in service and retired. It was not the first time I went there.”
Maximus nodded, inviting him to go on.
“Well, I did not try to inquire directly about Falco, but I spoke about the emperor to know what the men think of him….As you know many times the troop’s ideas reflect those of their commander. As we already presumed, Severus is not very popular because is trying to reduce the imperial guard’s powers and privileges.”
The Spaniard nodded again and after drinking more of his wine Quintus went on, “I was there for a hour when Falco arrived and saw me. I…We…are not on good terms and he teased me about my condition and the fact Lidia works like a servant in the Palace. I bit back my remarks and his mood shifted from teasing to a friendly one, asking me why I was there. I knew his change of tactic was not casual, but his reference to Livia gave me an idea. I told him I was drowning my worry with wine because the son of a man I condemned to death had returned to torment me.”
Maximus grinned as he caught the reference, “Good move.”
“Thank you. As I hoped he took the bait and asked me who was that man and I made your name. I also told him…ahem…that not happy to haunt me, you are also harassing my daughter..” Quintus watched apologetically to his former commander, “Falco was not surprised — and that makes me wonder if you are being followed while being out with Lidia — and burst in laughs. However, and this is the most important part of our conversation, when he stopped to laugh, he patted my arm and said that soon I will no longer need to worry about Lidia or myself. His tone was hard and I think he is plotting something against you.”
“You are probably right. When we met in the Senate I defied him — I did not use words but I think the message was clear enough. He knew I suspect he is behind the attempts to kill Lucius.”
“And now he has decided to first eliminate you and then move again on Lucilla’s son.”
“Exactly. I think the time of waiting for his moves is ended. Now is the moment to force Falco’s hand and make him commit a mistake.” Maximus’ tone was very determined.
“Have you already a plan?” Quintus inquired, curious.
“Yes and it involves the Empress…”
Further explanations were cut out when Lidia appeared on the door, “Tata?” she said shyly.
Maximus and Quintus turned to look at her, and her eyes shifted worryingly between their faces, trying to get a clue about what was going on.
“Come inside,” motioned her father smiling, “and sit near your husband.”
The girl smiled too, feeling relieved he was not angry and sat near Maximus, blushing when she noticed his torn tunic. The Spaniard reacted by squeezing her hand in a reassuring gesture and all her tension left her at once.
Quintus watched with a tender smile as they eyes locked, speaking an infinity of words, and then he left the pair alone, inwardly hoping they did not decide to have a repeat performance in the kitchen of what happened in the garden.
Two days later Maximus was standing in front of the gates of Lucilla’s and Lucius’ villa when the litter carrying the Empress began to descend the road which from the imperial palace took to the forum. The Spaniard was not there by chance, he was there because he knew the Augusta was going out that afternoon — Lidia had informed him she was going to attend the public reading of one of her writers’ works — and he was hoping to speak with her in private, to ask her help in his plan to trap Falco.
His hope was not disappointed: the litter, whose silky side curtains were open, had barely passed him when an imperious voice called the halt.
Maximus briefly met the woman’s eyes, before bowing his head in a respectful greeting. “Augusta.”
The Spaniard raised his eyes, and the Empress motioned him to step nearer.
“What a serious expression you have,” she commented.
“That’s true, my Lady, I am worried about Senator Lucius.”
“Is he unwell?”
“No, but someone is attempting to take his life.” Maximus said, watching the woman’s reaction. He saw horror appear on her face…. a genuine emotion which convinced him she truly had nothing to do with Falco.
When she recovered, the Empress asked, “Do you know who it is?”
“I suspect one person. But I have no proof against him. However I can tell you he is someone who knows what an important advisor Lucius is for Caesar…. Because it is your husband that this man wants to ultimately damage by killing Lucius.” Maximus had spoken softly, obliging the Augusta to bent forward to hear his words. The Spaniard was conscious of the Praetorians standing near them and could not risk being overheard.
The Empress’ face darkened and then she ordered, “Step inside, I want to know everything.”
The former general smiled and said aloud, “You are very gracious, domina, to offer me a lift.”
The August caught his meaning and even if she did not understand why he had acted so, she replied in kind. “No thanks are needed, we are both going in the same direction and my carriers are very strong.” She patted the cushions near her and smiled, “Come on Marcus, or I will be late.”
Maximus obeyed and, as the conveyance began to move again, he began to whisper everything he knew to the Empress.
In the end the Augusta nodded. “I think you are right. My husband had always known he is a snake but he is still too powerful to be eliminated or removed from his office.”
“I know it, my Lady.”
“Do you have any idea for trapping him?”
“I have indeed, domina. But I need your help to put it in practice.”
“Really?” The Augusta’s tone was excited even when she asked, “And would it be dangerous?”
“For you, domina? Not at all. Nor will it be for Lucius. But it will be for Falco.” Maximus smiled darkly and the woman nodded.
“Good. Now tell me everything.”
The Spaniard’s voice dropped even lower as he began to explain his plan…
When Maximus stepped out from the litter, he had a pleased smile on his face. Not only he was now sure the Empress was a great, intelligent lady, deign of her position, but she had accepted his plan to trap Falco without reservations, promising him to follow his instructions closely and to act as soon as possible.
The Spaniard watched till the conveyance had disappeared from his sight and then turned on his heels, eager to return home and to his wife’s warm embrace.
Some days later, Maximus was walking in the garden, the four wolfhounds trailing behind him, thinking about Lidia and wishing she was there with him. After their stormy reunion, they had a long talk, telling to each other the facts about their lives they had kept hidden till that moment. The Spaniard had told her about his days as general and as slave, about Selene and Marcus and about his travels around the world. She had told him about her life, first as a pampered child who could have everything and then as a girl struggling to understand why suddenly all of her friends had disappeared as her father became increasingly sad. Maximus had told her he was sorry for everything she had suffered, and Lidia had apologized for having always considered him the reason behind her family’s downfall, when it was clear it had never been his fault. Nor was it totally her father’s. It had simply happened, and she had to accept it.
And now it was as if the Gods wanted to smooth the edges of their working, or at least it was what the general thought. For him it was not mere coincidence he had been reunited with Lucilla, Lucius and Quintus or that he had met Lidia. The Gods had arranged it and, probably for the first time since waking up in the Colosseum bowels, Maximus felt happy to be the Chosen One. He was no longer angry or resentful for not have been able to stay in Elysium. He was only anxious to close his match with Falco, so that Lucius could stop living in fear, and he and Livia could really start to live together as husband and wife. For the moment they contented each other with brief meetings because Maximus did not want to put her in danger if the Prefect was having him followed.
Maximus’ line of thought was interrupted by a voice calling his name. He turned around and saw Lucius walking in his way, waving a piece of papyrus in his hand.
“I am sorry to bother you, but an imperial envoy has just been here…. with an invitation for dinner. It comes from the Empress.” The young senator’s voice was full of expectation.
“And…?” said Maximus, a shiver of excitement running along his back.
“It is for tomorrow.”
The Spaniard nodded as he and Lucius stared at each other’s eyes. They both know what the invitation really meant. It meant that in a little more than a day they would know if the plan to trap Falco had been successful…. If the nightmare had finally ended. Just few more hours and they would know.
The big hall was illuminated as if it were full day by many heavy candelabrums in silver and bronze which supported scented candles. Precious silks covered the triclinii and the dishes were served on shining golden plates or decorated glass.
The conversation around the table was monopolized by the Emperor who was now telling his guests about his military experience while stationed in Moesia. As the soldier he was still in his heart, Severus loved to tell tales to everyone who wanted to listen and that evening he was particularly loquacious. He had just finished another story when, turning to look at his guests to gauge their reactions, he noticed that Maximus had barely touched the food in his plate and was now sitting with his eyes closed.
“Is there something wrong, Marcus?” he asked and the young man turned his head to him.
“I am sorry, Caesar, but I am not feeling well. I think I might be fevered,” his voice was very low and seemed fatigued.
Near him, the Lady Lucilla raised her hand to touch his forehead and retracted it quickly. “You are very hot…Perhaps you should return home.”
“Yes,” intervened the Empress, “It would be better for you to retire.”
Marcus turned look at the Emperor and asked, “May I have the permission to leave the table, sir?”
“Of course you have it. Go home.”
“Thank you, Caesar.” Maximus stood up but staggered badly, reaching out a hand to the back of his chair.
Lucilla jumped on her feet and helped him to steady himself. Then she turned to Severus, who understand at once, nodded to her, giving her leaving to take the sick man home.
From the corner of the banquet hall Aelius Falco watched Lucilla put an arm around Maximus’ waist and slowly lead him away from the room. Few minutes later he threw a look out of the high window he was standing near and saw a litter pass through the palace gates.
A slow smile appeared on the Prefect’s lip as his calculating eyes settled on Lucius. It was the first time in months the young senator was alone outside his villa, without his guard dog always hovering near him and the Praetorian did not want to let the fortunate event pass without grabbing his chance. This was the moment to get rid of Lucius once for all and this time he would did the job by himself.
When the dinner was finished, the guests rose from the table and went to the perystilium, walking in the well-tended garden or forming small speaking groups here and there. Lucius found himself near the Empress and soon they lost themselves in a literal discussion.
“I insist, senator, Horatius’ poems are better than Catullus’,” the Augusta said, walking near the fountain and idly touching the water with her fingertips.
Lucius smiled at her side and replied, “Perhaps, my Lady, but I find Catullus’ love carmina very good, especially when he is describing his suffering because of Lesbia’s…” the young man could not complete the sentence as a bout of coughing racked him and the Empress looked at him with worry. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, it is nothing. I am used to it.” Lucius reassured her.
“Perhaps it would be better if you put on the hood of your cloak. It is pretty cold this evening.” The Augusta suggested but her eyes showed she expected him to obey.
Shaking his head, a bit amused because she was treating him like a small child, Lucius did as he was told.
“Good,” smiled Julia Domna. “Now what are you saying? Ah yes, you were speaking of Lesbia…”
“Yes, domina, I was saying you how very convincing Catullus is when he writes about Lesbia’s betrayals…”
“Oh, so you like the ‘broken-heart poetry. You are a romantic, Senator!” she chided him.
“I am afraid so, my lady.” Lucius smiled a bit embarrassed.
“Why should you be sorry? I find it endearing. And since you like that genre of writing, I would like to show you the work of one of my young poets. I think he has a lot of talent.”
“I would be honored, Augusta, but it is already late and I have to go home. I am worried about Marcus…”
“Then come with me in my study: I will give you the scroll so you will be able to read it in your villa and tell me your opinion next time we meet.”
“It is a great idea, my lady.”
“Good; now let’s salute Caesar and then we will go to the study.”
Hidden behind a curtain, Falco watched the Empress and Lucius leave the perystilium and walk inside the house. Moving swiftly and silently he followed them till the study and awaited till he saw the door opening again and Lucius exit the room with a scroll tucked under his arm.
From his position the Prefect watched the senator bend his hooded head to kiss the Augusta’s hands and then they separated, the woman returning to her guests, Lucius directed to the exit.
Moving through the hidden corridors used by the servant to come and go without being seen, Falco quickly arrived in the yard which opened in front of the main door of the imperial palace and walked to the fence, nodding to one of his most trusted men who was there guarding the gate. The Praetorian replied with a nod to his commander, signaling that all was ready for the ambush and Falco smiled, leaving the yard and running down the clivius to take his position, flattened along the wall of a villa in the trait of road which was very dark because his men had arranged to extinguish some of the torches.
Falco took out his dagger and prepared himself to wait.
A few minutes later, he heard the Praetorian guarding the gate say aloud, almost shouting, “Good evening, Senator,” and he gripped the hilt of the dagger more firmly. He could not allow himself to make a mistake.
His pounding heartbeat echoing in his ears he listened to the noise of footsteps becoming louder and nearer and finally Lucius entered the obscured area of the road.
Without making a sound, Falco threw himself on his victim, his dagger raised in the air, but when he tried to strike he was violently pushed away, landing heavily on the paved road. Even if he was surprised by the unsuspected strength the weak looking senator had displayed, the Praetorian did not loose his nerve and attacked again, only to have his arm blocked with an iron-grip on his wrist. With an unarticulated cry, the soldier raised his other arm and hit the face he could barely see, feeling his blood freeze in his veins as his fist encountered a bearded chin instead of Lucius’ smooth one…..
“Surprised, Falco?” Maximus hissed in his attacker’s ears as he heard him gasp.
The Prefect kicked the Spaniard hard in his low belly and managed to get free, but he did not escape. He instead turned to face his enemy.
“You! How can it be possible?”
“It is a trap, Prefect, an old fashioned change of person.” Maximus’ voice was ironic, as he freed himself from the cape and hood.
Falco’s eyes narrowed. “You traded places with the senator in the Empress’ study.” he said, realizing at once that if the Augusta knew about the plan, Caesar too would surely be aware of it.
“Right. And now you can consider yourself under arrest for the attempted murder of Senator Lucius Verus.” Just as Maximus stopped to talk, a sound of running footsteps was heard in the road, coming both from the top and the bottom of the clivius. Soon, the Spaniard knew, a cohort of legionaries would surround them.
“It is ended Falco. You cannot escape.” he added.
“They will never take me alive!” the Prefect said, unsheathing his sword his eyes burning with hate, “and you, bastard, will come with me in the after life!”
In a move so quick that Maximus had barely time to lift the sword he had kept hidden under his cloak, Falco was on him, the metal of their glaudiuses meeting and creating sparks which lighted the darkness.
The two men began to fight with all their strength, Falco wanting to kill, the Spaniard wanting to defend himself and disarm his opponent, so to bring him to justice. They kept on attacking and retreating, totally unaware that the crowd now surrounding them was not composed only by soldiers but that Lucius, Lucilla, Quintus, Septimius Severus and the Empress were there too.
Suddenly, as he was backing away to avoid another furious charge from Falco, Maximus’ feet became tangled in the cloak he had let fall to the ground and that, added to the longitudinal slope of the road, made him lose his balance and fell on his back. He was quick to rise again on his feet, but not so quick as to avoid Falco’s sword, wounding him on his left side. The former general gritted his teeth at the blinding bout of pain that assaulted him, but found inside himself enough strength to react. He knew he could not let Falco inflict a ‘mortal’ wound in front of witnesses…. the one he had just caused was serious enough. Thus Maximus pressed his left arm along his side, and attacked again, a new determination in his eyes. Falco was surprised by the strength behind his opponent’s blows, but considering all the blood the Spaniard was losing, he was confident the man would soon be too weak and slow to react…..
How wrong he was!
Falco could not possibly know that what was happening in the road seemed the exact repeat of the final duel between Maximus and Commodus, the wounded Spaniard attacking again and again a sound man as the blood ran along his side fueled him with energy instead of sapping it.
And just as it happened twenty years before, Lucilla, Lucius and Quintus saw the staggering former general get the upper hand on his opponent, first driving him down on his knees and then disarming him with a precise swipe of his gladius.
The clang of Falco’s sword falling on the paved road several yards away from him, made the soldiers act: even before the Praetorian was able to realize what had happened, he found himself dragged to his feet and tightly bound.
Septimius Severus walked inside the little ring created by the legionaries and the wall lining along the road and ordered, “Take him away.”
“Yes, Caesar.” replied a centurion, tugging on the prisoner’s bindings.
As the Prefect was led away, Severus turned to Maximus who was standing near him, his skin pale and sweaty, his left hand pressed to his side while he was leaning heavily on his sword which he was using to steady himself.
Caesar saw him and gasped, his words of thank dying on his lips. Mingled among the soldiers Severus had not seen how badly the Spaniard had been wounded but now he realized the young man was about to collapse.
“A doctor!” he called, “He needs a doctor!”
It was then that Lucilla stepped near, “He is already waiting in my villa.” she said urgently.
“Yes, we wanted to be prepared, Caesar.”
“Then we must take Marcus there at once! I will come with you..” the Emperor said but Lucius approached him and whispered, “It will be better if you return at the Palace, Septimius. You need to sign the arrest warrant for Senator Falco.”
Severus nodded, “You are right. I must go.”
“Good. Now don’t worry, we will do our best to save Marcus.”
“All right.” And with a final look to Maximus, Caesar turned on his heel and went away.
“Thanks Gods,” hissed Maximus, grimacing with pain.. “I was afraid he wanted to stay here all night.”
Lucilla, Lucius and Quintus exchanged a look, worry and relief warring on their faces and then the old lady asked, “What do you want us to do?”
“I only need to go home and lie down. My body will do the rest,” replied Maximus with calm, conscious that his friends were scared by his rapidly deteriorating condition.
“Are you sure? Don’t you need a doctor?” wondered Quintus.
“I am sure.” The former general smiled, “Trust me, all will be all right. I just need your help to walk to the villa. Soon.”
“As you wish.” With infinite care Quintus and Lucius flanked Maximus and, putting his arms over their shoulders, steadied himself as he negotiated the few yards of downhill road separating him from the domus.
“Tata…? Is that you?”
Quintus tried to ignore his daughter’s confused voice as he directed the servants at Lucilla’s villa to prepare the Spaniard’s bed, and trying to gauge his wounded friend’s condition. It had been his idea not to tell Lidia Clara that a plan to trap Falco was in the works… but that was when he thought Maximus himself would be informing her of the plan’s success.
What would the girl say when she saw the condition of her husband?
He did not have to wait long for an answer.
“Tata, why are you-?” Lidia’s voice died on her lips as she saw the pale, prone figure lying on a stretcher between the slaves. “Maximus!” She cried, her voice full of terror as she rushed forward.
“Over there.” Lucilla indicated to the men bearing the littler, nodding in approval as they complied.
“Maximus….” Tears began to stream down the younger woman’s cheeks as she bent forward to brush away the hair from his forehead and tentatively probe the wound in his side. “What happened, tata, Senator Lucius, what-?”
“He was attacked while saving my life.” Lucius said in a gentle tone, taking the girl by the arm and pulling her from the bed. “He was wounded….”
“Where is the doctor?” The woman’s voice was frantic, and she tried to wrench away from the Senator’s grasp to lunge for the door. “We have to summon help, we have to…”
“Clara, no.” Quintus’ voice was very firm – the same tone that he had used with his daughter when she was a mischievous child. “Maximus says that he will recover on his own. We can’t let anyone else see…. what he is… you know that.”
“But what if it doesn’t work… what if he was wrong… what if-”
The former Praetorian met his child’s eyes, trying to give her comfort. “We have to trust.”
“He is dead.”
Lucilla spoke very softly, but her voice seemed to carry in the little room. The sound of the word “dead”- flat and ominous- seemed to echo on the cool stucco walls.
Lidia’s body was wracked with a sob so violent that it forced her to her knees. Quintus and Lucilla exchanged a look.
“Come Lucius.” The former empress said quietly. “There is nothing more for us to do here…..”
As she exited the room, Lucilla laid her hand on Lidia’s shoulder. “I will pray for him.” She murmured. “We must all pray.”
“Come Clara.” Quintus said softly, holding his hand toward his daughter.
“No.” the woman rose on her feet and took a step back toward the bed. “I will stay with him.”
Quintus, Lucius and Lucilla shared a look, but in the end they nodded, leaving the couple alone.
Lidia walked to the side of the bed, unable to stop herself from reaching out to Maximus’ cheek, but recoiling in horror at the clamminess of his skin.
Was the story that he had told her father true? Would he really hold her in his arms again? Blinking back her tears, she drew a chair beside the bed and resigned herself to wait.
Soft, grey streaks of light were already filtering through the high narrow windows of the room when Lidia finally opened her eyes. She blinked in disorientation as she lifted her head from the crumpled blankets where if had fallen. Where was she?
With a pang, the events of the night before flooded back: the worry she felt when she had not found her father at home as she returned from the palace, her journey in the dark to Lucilla’s villa to see if he was there visiting her husband, the horror of finding Maximus wounded ….dead….
Finally she realized what had awoken her…. a movement beneath the coverlets… Her husband was alive!
Looking up, Lidia found his soft blue eyes staring tenderly into her own.
“Good morning.” He whispered softly, reaching forward to stroke her hair.
“Maximus, you’re – !”
“Shhh….” the Spaniard laid his finger across the woman’s lips, silencing her. “I told you that everything would be all right…it is a blessing as much as a curse.” Still smiling, he reached forward to gather his wife into his arms.
“Be careful!” Lidia warned. “Your side and back are-”
“Completely healed.” Maximus finished for her. Seeing the look of disbelief in her eyes, he lifted the hem of his tunica and bent forward, exposing his flesh to her inspection.
“How is it possible?” The woman murmured in disbelief, unable to prevent herself from sliding her hand across the pink, unlined muscles that betrayed no hint of their injury. “How could it heal so quickly?” She moved her hands upwards to his shoulder blades, searching for the other cuts that she had noticed the night before.
The Spaniard allowed her curious explorations to continue unchecked, happy to feel her skin against his own.
“You are certain that you are all right?” She asked worriedly. “It didn’t hurt?”
“It hurt.” Maximus admitted, wincing to recall the razor-like slicing of the gladius through his flesh. “But not for long.”
“What is it like?”
“It?” the general tilted his head, gauging her face until he pieced together what she had meant. “Dying?”
“Like being asleep…on a very cold night, when you are in a warm bed….next to someone you love.” he murmured reassuringly. “It is nothing to fear.”
“But I am glad that you returned.”
“As am I.” He admitted, finally succeeding in drawing her tightly against her chest.
His wife murmured appreciatively at the action, and began tracing his skin again, stroking her fingertips against the ridges of his skin, exploring the old scars and then the new. He nuzzled her neck, as her hand trailed lower.
“I wasn’t ever injured there.” he teased as she finally reached his lap.
“Good thing.” Lidia whispered, tilting her chin to gather his lips into a deep kiss.
Maximus answered her request wholeheartedly, grateful that he had someone so wonderful to return to- and for finding himself, for the first time in his life- with no duty to draw him away.
The marble slate slid on its place with a thud, the low sound echoing in the long, dark room. Maximus checked that it was well positioned and then stepped back. His eyes scanned the golden inscription on the box even if he could barely read it, his vision blurred by his tears. It was very simple:
Maximus touched the letters that formed the cherished name and fell down on his knees, the pain and the anguish that gripped him so strong that he could barely breath. He had always thought that never in his life he would suffer as much as he did when he discovered Selen’s and Marcus’ broken bodies, but now he knew it was not true.
The Spaniard stood up and whispered among his sobs, “Wait for me in Elysium, Lidia. One day I will be back and we will be together again.” He then took slow, deep breaths, trying to steady himself and looked around him. The Aurelii-Antonini family tomb was almost dark, with only few torches lightening it. The graves had increased since the first time he had stepped inside….Lidia, Lucilla, Lucius and Quintus now rested there for the eternity. Everyone Maximus had known or loved was now dead, leaving him more alone then he had ever been. Once more his thoughts turned to the Gods. Why they would not let him die? Why did he have to survive? What he had done to deserve such a curse? But as usual he received no answer, if not the deep awareness inside him that his task was not completed. The Gods had other plans for him, and he could only follow them. Maximus hated to be at the mercy of their whims but he had no choice. However he still had some control over his life and of one thing he was sure: never again he would permit himself to fall in love. It had been too heart-breaking, too terrible to watch Lidia grow old as he remained young, and then see her die, feeling utterly desperate and powerless because there was nothing he could do to stop the natural process.
Never again he would put himself in that position. Never again he would live through the agony he had experienced with Selene, Marcus and Lidia. He was sure he would not be able to bear it another time. He would stay alone for the rest of his life.
His decision taken, Maximus realized it was time for him to go. There was no way he could live in Rome without Livia, there were too many memories to haunt him. Also he could not stand to watch the city’s slow but inarrestable downfall. The emperors succeeding Septimius Severus had been one worst than the other, and the Spaniad was almost happy Lucilla and Lucius had died before seeing the damage they were doing to the empire. He would return to Gaul and settle in his lands for a while, trying to regain the peace he had lost. Then maybe he would return to traveling. Lucilla and Lucius had left him all of their lands scattered across the empire, but he had never visited them…. perhaps now it was a good time to do so. Perhaps it would keep him busy. Perhaps…
With a sigh he bent and kissed Lidia’s grave. “Goodbye my love.” he murmured, before touring all the mausoleum, saluting its occupants a last time, and blow the lamps out. Then he walked away and exited outside, where a bright sun shone on him as he locked the gilded door.
His stallion was waiting there and without loosing time Maximus mounted him and headed towards the city gates.
A hour later a solitary rider left Rome behind.
He never looked back, concentrating only on the future, which looked long and perilous like the roads stretching in front of him. But he had no fear: he would meet it with his head high and his eyes focused as he had always done.
He, Maximus Decimus Meridas, soldier of Rome, the Gods’ Chosen One.