AD 33, Caesarea, Judaea Province
Six Days Before Passover
Usually Leah followed the path briskly from the main kitchen to the baths. Today, with the Mediterranean breeze caressing her face and the sun not yet a scorching heat overhead, she could not help but slow her steps. She lifted her eyes at the cry of the seabirds. How peaceful it appeared. Only a few clouds hung in the sky, like a flock of spring lambs. Down below the walkway, sea waves lapped gently along the promontory's edge. Not even the first stirrings within the palace compound behind her could diminish her sense of delight.
For one further moment Leah drank it all in, her gaze sweeping across the panorama before her. Finally she turned away from the vast blue sea and studied the beauty of the city's setting.
Caesarea stretched like a royal necklace along the seafront, with the palace of Pontius Pilate its centermost jewel. From her position upon the rocky point, Leah studied the elaborate courtyard with its columns and statuary, the opulent ceramic-tiled baths, and the impressive marbled façade of the palace itself. Broad, grand entrance steps rose up to gold double doors. In different circumstances, Leah would have found it all impossibly beautiful. Even though she had been raised as no stranger to fine things and elegant living, never had she dreamed of residing in the palace of the prelate of Judaea. Yet here she stood, strangely a part of it all.
In different circumstances ...
It was the first occasion in a long time that Leah's thoughts had flown across years and countries to her grandmother. Whatever would she think of Leah now, standing here amid such splendor? Leah recalled how the old woman often stroked her face and said, "I see great things in store for you, my little one." Then she would pat her generous silk-gowned bosom with bejeweled fingers, as though sealing the promise in her heart. Her dear grandmother. What Leah would give for just a few hours with her beloved grandparent now. But she had been gone for eight long years. Leah would have that opportunity no more.
Leah sighed and turned away from the opulence of the palace and back to the contrasting beauty of the sea. Its surface sparkles like Grandmother's jewels. How easy it would be on such a dawn to overlook the reality that she was here because she had no recourse.
Far beyond the rolling waves lay her real home. True, there was no longer any place for her there, but it still held her heart. Would she ever see Verona again? And in Rome, her mother faced a new dawn as well. Alone. Bereft. Leah yearned to be with her, offering what love and comfort she was able. But she remained trapped within this imposing palace of a Roman prelate, surrounded by elegance she could appreciate only from a distance. Yes, she had been born to wealth and position, yet here she stood, little more than a slave. Bitterness filled her throat and caught her breath.
Another thought chased through her mind. If nothing more, she faced an easier circumstance than her two older sisters. She was free in spirit, if not in body. She was able to call her life her own, even if it was a life of servanthood. She would far rather be a servant in Pilate's household than slave to a man she neither loved nor respected, who ruled her every move. Hers was a bondage far more easily endured, she was sure.
Leah cast one more longing look over the blue expanse of sea, and with a determined lift of her shoulders walked on toward the bathhouse. Her first duties of the day would have her laying out fresh towels and robes and making sure that all the expensive unguents and soaps were readily available.
You must take what is good from the world for yourself, a quiet but firm voice echoed in her memory, for the world will never come to you with outstretched hand. Her father's words. Yet even as she recalled them, she was forced to admit that the philosophy had brought even him no lasting rewards.
* * *
The next morning, Leah's demanding day suddenly veered toward chaos. Like every other servant in Pilate's household, she always dreaded word that the prelate was moving to Jerusalem. For the servants and slaves it meant that their normal duties, already keeping them busy from early morning to late night, were multiplied many times over.
Leah struggled to meet the increasingly frantic pace. She had felt well enough the night before, when she had finally finished the day's work and retired to her pallet in the servants' quarters. Yet during the night she had tossed fitfully, and when she had lifted a hand to her brow, she knew she had a fever. Before dawn she had gone to the kitchen for water. She had slept some again and hoped her discomfort would pass. But now her strength drained away as her activities mounted along with the day's heat.
Leah knew her mistress, Pilate's wife, noted how sluggish Leah was that morning. She tried to add quickness to her step and lightness to her countenance. A servant's misfortunes, whatever their source, were not permitted to taint the lady's day.
But as the hours wore on, Leah found she was unable to sustain the brave front. Her body felt like it carried its own fire pit. Her stomach was unsettled, and she ached with a dreadful bone weariness from her head to her feet.
She touched her face with one hand, and her own fingers felt the unusual warmth. Though this was the first time she had ever suffered with the fever that swept the land at every winter's close, Leah knew its symptoms. She could feel the slow burn begin to scorch her limbs. I don't have time to be ill, she groaned inwardly. Not today!
A palace guard appeared from around the corner of the bathhouse and glanced her way. Despite the late afternoon light and the distance, Leah could see the scowl that touched his face. Had he noticed something? Were her steps dragging? Was she staggering? She forced herself to keep moving. Even though the sun was dropping into the western horizon, there was still much to be done. For on the morrow they all would leave for Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate would take charge of maintaining the peace during the annual Passover festival.
She reluctantly turned away toward the servants' quarters. Maybe if she could rest for a few moments.... Midway there, however, she felt as though a wave from the sea were rising up and sweeping over her. She grabbed the wall as the light dimmed to grey, uncertain even where she was. She heard a voice call her name but did not have the strength to respond.
Leah did not fear the darkness that rose up to claim her. In fact, she welcomed it.