Janus Marcellus lay on his pallet, his arms behind his head as he watched her dress. A slow smile appeared on his lips.
“Ah…I see we have come to the part where you get your reward for…services rendered.”
Shemsi continued to dress, her face remaining blank. She had learned to steel herself during their encounters and was accustomed to his barbs leveled at her. She drew her cloak around herself and turned to face him, her eyes fixed on his, unwavering.
“You are a man of honour, my lord. Surely you would not begrudge me this small token.”
“It will destroy you, Shemsi,” he said in uncharacteristic concern as he began to sit up. “You will come to the point where you will be unable to live without it. I have seen its effect on some of the rich Roman women. It is not pleasant.”
Shemsi blinked several times, confused. She was used to witty banter and acerbic humour – things she could deal with. This was unfamiliar territory. “My lord, it is not for me. It helps my daughter. She is…ill.”
Janus looked thoughtful for a moment before he sank back unto the pallet, his eyes with a faraway look. Shemsi took it as her cue to leave and was about to exit when he said, ‘Have you tried healers?”
She stopped and replied, without turning around. “I have, my lord. They are all quacks.”
“Have you appealed to the gods? Perhaps they are displeased with you.”
She turned around, her eyes narrowed. “I have no time for gods. Who are they but capricious beings who take their pleasure from inflicting misery upon their subjects?”
Janus chuckled, raising his brows and breathing deeply. “Your careless words may bring about more misery, my lady.”
“No more than I have already endured, Centurion.” Then, tipping her chin up, she asked, “May I go now?”
“You may,” he said, with a lazy smile, bringing his hand up and waving her away. “Thank you, my lady, for yet another entertaining evening. My man shall escort you home.”
“That will not be necessary –”
“Yes it will. I’m afraid our assignations have made you some new enemies…and I enjoy you a little too much to want to see your throat cut by some hired alley rat. Now Lady Shemsi, go well.”
Shemsi got home, escorted by her bodyguard with a soldier following a few paces behind until she arrived at the entrance. The house was quiet as she stepped in, the cool sea breeze blown in and making low hollow sounds as it passed through windows. She gave a terse command for Frida to prepare her bathing oils as she made her way to the small tepidarium attached to her large bedroom. She felt especially unclean after her time with Janus, for some inexplicable reason.
As she soaked in the pool-like structure, she felt the warm water sluice over her tight muscles and nerves, easing the burden a little. But there was a sense of unrest. She looked over her shoulder to find Frida struggling not to fall asleep as she sat on a nearby stool, awaiting Shemsi’s orders. A sliver of compassion swept through her.
The girl’s eyes popped open and she stood up quickly. “My lady…I am sorry. I did not mean to…”
“It’s alright. You are dismissed.”
“I…but my lady, you have not finished and…”
“Leave, Frida. Go and sleep.”
The maid curtsied and walked out and a moment later Shemsi heard her bedchamber door shut. She sighed and ran her hands over her head, feeling the water run through her fingers. She got out of the pool and walked into her room, water trailing behind her. She surveyed her plush surroundings.
Her bed, grand and imposing, was carved from cedar and pieced together by skilled craftsmen. It was covered in a thick silk and bedspread and with soft linen sheets from Egypt. She had special papyrus sheets soaked in myrrh placed under her mattress so the fragrance would waft up with very move she made as she slept. She had ordered the bed she and Baarak had shared in their marriage burned. There were tapestries on the walls, imported pottery and a Greek mosaic on one side of her wall. It was her sanctuary- the place she retreated to when she needed to think; free of the encumbrance of men and business pressures, a place that she sat with Ba’asma in her more lucid moments, singing to her and telling her stories.
A glint caught her eye and she looked toward a large chest full of her treasures – gold, silver and precious stones; jewelry she had amassed over time. She walked to the chest, still unclad, and opened it. The light from oil lamps caused the contents to gleam- fine necklaces, bracelets and rings.
Shemsi grabbed a handful and brought them out, examining them. They were so beautiful, so intricate.
Men would die for you. You have caused war and untold pain, you trinkets. Who knows how much blood has been spilled for me to have you here, to wear around my neck and fingers? How many would slit my throat to have you?
She felt her skin prickle with goose bumps, whether from her thoughts or the wind from her balcony, she couldn’t tell. For a moment, as she gazed at the trinkets in her hand she was struck by the thought that she held everything and yet held nothing – a paradox.
Shemsi sighed and tossed the trinkets back into the chest, put on her night clothing and fell asleep almost as soon as she touched the bed.
Shemsi heard whispers; excited conversation going on in hushed tones among the servants even before she entered the kitchen. She slowed her pace for a moment, trying to catch pieces of their conversation; ashamed to be so curious and yet drawn to the words ‘great healer’…‘miracle’…‘fed thousands of people’. She then drew back her shoulders and made a regal entrance, surveying the servants with a hint of disdain.
A hush came over them and they all turned to continue their work, trying not to make any eye contact with her lest she pour out her anger. She found her target in Frida, whose face was a mask of guilt and trepidation as she regarded her Lady.
“Frida, I have been looking for you. I am surprised to see you here with the kitchen maids. Are you not happy to be my maidservant or would you rather join them?”
“No, my lady. I am sorry, my lady.”
‘Come with me,” Shemsi said, before turning around and walking away, satisfied to hear the patter of Frida’s feet behind her.
Shemsi remained silent as Frida helped her put on some jewelry and arrange her hair. Frida was in the process of putting a bejeweled pin in Shemsi’s hair when she asked a question.
“Frida, who is the great healer I overheard the servants speak of?”
“Oh…eh…pay them no mind, my lady. These are just wild tales being spread about…”
“Tell me.” Shemsi’s command brooked no argument.
Frida paused, inhaled and began to speak, pinning Shemsi’s hair up gently, her voice soft and calming. “Well…they say He is an ordinary man with extraordinary powers…a Jew…”
“A Jew? A member of that overly pious race?”
“Yes, my lady. But they say He does wonders. I have heard that He raised a little girl from the dead and that He healed a woman with a sickness that ate at her…”
“I thought Jewish men did not give any credence to their women…much like our own,” Shemsi said, attempting to cover the urgent curiosity in her with a flippant tone.
Frida was not deterred. “Maybe so…but there are witnesses. And they say He can heal any disease…”
Shemsi pondered her words, and a glimmer of hope pierced through her in an instant, only to be doused by the weight of disappointment. Nothing was as it seemed and if it sounded too good to be true, then it was. She shrugged. “Oh well…even if He does really do as they say, being a Jew, He wouldn’t venture to these parts.”
“Oh, but I hear he’s already here…somewhere near Tyre. People are flocking to see Him.”
“Really, Frida…you sound like a foolish child enamored by an old wife’s tale. Maybe then you can go and see Him and receive healing for your clumsy fingers.”
Shemsi’s tone was dismissive and Frida made a sound of agreement before resuming her duties. But a seed had been planted in Shemsi’s mind.
“Have you heard of this Jewish healer before? The one they say performs miracles?” Shemsi asked as she reclined on a couch in Janus’ tent, a goblet of wine held in her hand. Janus shrugged, sipping on his own goblet.
“Ah, I see you have heard of Him…that Yeshua fellow. Nothing more than silly tales spread by Jewish rabble who want to get their hopes up.”
“Hope is a dangerous thing, isn’t it? Especially for an occupying force.”
Janus laughed and tipped his goblet toward her. “Hope is something to crush if we wish to continue with Pax Romana. And as far as this Yeshua doesn’t get in the way, He can leap into the sea for all I care.”
Shemsi sat up a little straighter. ‘Yes but what if the reports are true?”
Janus stopped drinking his wine and regarded her with suspicion. “What are you getting at, woman?’
“I’m just saying that if He can really heal…then maybe, just maybe…”
“Get any foolish ideas out of your head, Shemsi. That…that charlatan has the potential to cause a rebellion. And you do not want to be anywhere nearby when a rebellion is squashed by the strong arm of Rome.”
Shemsi couldn’t recall seeing Janus so serious. She attempted to lighten the mood. “So, look who believes in old wives’ tales now.”
He leaned forward, his eyes flashing. “Even foolish tales have the propensity to become propaganda in the hands of one’s enemies, Shemsi. I warn you: stay away from that Yeshua.”
Shemsi felt the ire in her rise at his order. “You would order me on how and where I go, my lord? I survived six years of almost daily assault and beatings from a monster I called my husband. So do you think I am afraid of a lowly Jew?”
“You forget your place, woman,” Janus said, warning in his voice as he began to rise.
Shemsi sat up, smoothing over her tunic and throwing her veil around her head and shoulders. “Oh, but I know my place, my lord. I am only a commodity, something to be traded in exchange for another. I have given you my body and you have given me, or rather, my business, protection. Trade by barter. And you are a man of your word, I am grateful. But I do not presume that you have any real concern for me.” She bowed her head and stood up. “I bid you good evening, my lord.” Then she turned to go.
“Shemsi…if you go looking for that Jew then know this: I cannot ensure your safety. Your fate lies squarely in your hands.”
Shemsi tightened her jaw and gave a curt nod. “So be it.” And she stepped out of the tent and into the cool night.
Written by Sifa Asani Gowon, @sifushka