Twist Of Destiny
My worries for Maximus never abandoned me completely, both during the just described "ordeal" and the frantic journey preparations that followed it. Every night I prayed for his safety and dreamed that one day we would meet again and I would present him his child. Before I left Zucchabar for good, I enquired with other lanistae about Proximo, but none of them had heard from him since he had departed for Rome, about six months before. It also seemed that in the last period the communications between Italia and the other regions of the Empire were somehow diminished; there was less mail coming in, and the number of ships from and to the Italian peninsula had decreased, causing the merchants to "sniff" the air with attention, afraid some crisis was going on. As for myself, I was not worried about the situation, since I was out of the trading business, but the lack of news annoyed me. I wanted - needed - to know what was going on in the Colosseum.
The gods finally responded to my prayers for information, and gave me what I wanted. I got news about Maximus, but it was not what I had hoped to hear...
I was in Tingis, the closest harbour to Zucchabar, settling the last details about our trip to Hispania. I had just exited from the office of the captain of the ship taking Valeria, the household and me to Malaca, and I was walking along the docks, waiting for Antonius, my secretary and tutor, to join me after he had attended to the loading of our things on the vessel. It was already September, and soon the navigation routes would be closed for the winter, but that day was still warm and the sea was calm like oil. A ship had just docked from Italia, and I quickened my pace to see if I was able to exchange some conversation with the captain or some of the passengers. My belly was swollen, but not so much to impede my walk, so I reached it in time to spot a muscular, young Numidian step down the vessel with a leather bag thrown over his shoulder. It took me some seconds to realize why he looked so familiar: he was one of Proximo's men, I had watched him train the morning I had visited the school to arrange Maximus' visit.
My heart pounding with excitement, I gathered my courage and stepped in front of him, blocking his path. He had been looking around, distracted by the activities surrounding us, but he quickly caught his step and looked at me with confusion. "My lady?"
I swallowed hard before saying, "Excuse me, domine, may I ask you a question?"
The man's brow rose in surprise - he clearly was not used to be addressed in such a way - then he nodded.
"Are you one of Proximo's gladiators?"
The Numidian stiffened and proudly tilted his head, "I was. Now I am a freedman."
"Congratulations!" I replied with a smile, trying to imagine what he must have felt when he had gained his freedom. Then I ‘became serious again and formulated the question my mind was screaming for me to ask, "And what about Maximus... the Spaniard?"
The man stared at me with a penetrating look. "Did you know Maximus?"
I nodded as my heart skipped a beat at the use of the past tense. "I have known Maximus since we were children in Hispania."
His face brightened in understanding, "Oh, so then you are "that" friend! The one he met the night before our departure for Rome. I am Juba."
We shook hands as I idly wondered about what Maximus had said to him, and then I strengthened myself and pressed on. "Where is he?"
Even before he lowered and shook his head, I knew, by the veil of sadness that fell over his eyes that he was going to tell me something I was not ready to hear. A part of me desperately wanted to cover my ears or order him to keep silent or even urged me to run away, but still I remained there, rooted on the spot, awaiting those final, definitive words. "Maximus is dead."
"Dead?" I repeated my stubborn heart still hoping I had misunderstood.
"Yes," he confirmed, raising his brown eyes to meet mine. "I am sorry, domina."
I became light-headed as I felt all my strength leave me. Dead. Maximus was dead. The pain hit me like a blow in the stomach and I doubled over, caught by a sudden bout of nausea as large, warm tears began to slide down my cheeks. Dead. He was dead.
I staggered as my knees gave out under me, but the Numidian was quick and his strong arms prevented me from falling. "Please domina," he whispered in my ear, "Let me take you to that tavern. You need to sit down." I think I nodded to him; I don't remember. The world had ceased to exist, as only three words continued to echo in my mind. Maximus was dead.
Juba sat at the table, watching the pregnant woman in front of him with concern in his eyes. She was no longer crying, but she was still pale and distraught and he did not dare to leave her alone until her servant - she had said there was one doing errands in the harbour - came to search for her. The Numidian turned to look around him, to the sailors and workers walking back and forth along the docks, trying to see if one of them gave the impression of looking for someone.
"How did he die?" The woman's murmured question almost startled him. She had been so silent for so long, dabbing her eyes with a piece of cloth and sniffling, he was surprised to hear her voice again.
Juba returned to look at her and said, "He died like a hero, freeing the empire from a blood thirsty tyrant."
The lady stared at him wide eyed and Juba spent the next several minutes telling her what had happened in Rome, from the first battle in the Colosseum to the moment the honour guard that had taken Maximus' body away from the arena, leaving him in a room in the Imperial palace. He also told her what the Spaniard had revealed to him, about the circumstances that had led to the death of his family and his reduction to slavery. His voice wavered more than once as he remembered the words and the gestures of the special man that Maximus had been, and when he recalled that his friend had been responsible for giving back his own freedom, a few tears escaped his eyes. And he was not alone. The matron was crying again, although she had tried valiantly to resist the urge to break down, and her right hand was caressing her swollen belly, as if she was taking comfort from the gesture - or was trying to give it to the child inside her womb. Juba just hoped that all her tension and obvious grief did not harm her unborn creature. He looked more closely at her, trying to determine how far she was in her pregnancy. Five, six months at least. Six months... Juba frowned in deep thought. That was about the time Maximus had visited the lady, just before they left for Rome. The Numidian knew what had happened that night, an ashamed Maximus had told him when he had wondered about why the Spaniard was so furious with their owner. Could it be possible that...? Could he dare to ask?
"Domina?" She raised her head to look at him. "Domina, may I ask you a very personal question?"
"Are you carrying Maximus' child?"
"Yes..." she whispered, and new tears threatened to escape her. "In- in all these months I have prayed for his safety, hoping that one day I would able to tell him about the baby...and now...." She shook her head slowly.
Juba was moved by the woman's pain. Maximus had told him how close they had been as children and teenagers and he could now see the depth of that feeling on her saddened face. Wanting to comfort her, he reached out a hand to take her left one. "I am sure Maximus would be very happy and proud of this child."
"That's what I like to think." A little smile, followed by a moment of silence and a change of expression. "My secretary is coming this way. I must go." The lady dried her eyes, adjusted the palla over her head and then stood up. Juba did the same and quickly rounding the table, helped her to step away from the long bench where she had been sitting.
She smiled at him, then took both of his hands and said, looking straight into his eyes, "Thank you Juba, for everything. Thank you for telling me what happened in Rome: when this child is old enough, I will tell him about his great father and about what he did for the empire."
"No thanks are needed, my lady. I am just sorry I could not give you good news."
"I know." She straightened her posture and added, "I must go. May the good always be with you."
"I will pray the same for you and your child, domina." Juba bowed his head and they exchanged a last handshake before the woman resolutely turned her back to him and walked away to meet her servant.
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