Chapter 1: First Impressions
He wanted a happy ending. Every child did. He stared into the brown orbs gazing back at him. She smiled as she took a seat beside him on the bed. He clasped his hands waiting for her to recite the legend.
“There once was a mysterious island that lay hidden in the Great Sea. On the island lived an enchanted goddess with raven black hair and piercing blue eyes. She would lie in wait for her victims to arrive on her shores. She would keep whatever man that crossed her path prisoner and force him to hide the secrets that lie within the island.
“What secrets?” he blurted. The young boy leaned into his mother, pressing against her bosom. Their eyes met in the glowing light from the single wavering flame. It was the only thing illuminating the room. For him light meant safety. It meant warmth. But now it only illuminated the mystery glistening in the brownish orbs staring back at him.
“I cannot tell you. It is a secret, Troy,” his mother whispered.
“What is a secret Mummy?”
She flashed him a toothy grin. “A secret is something hidden that you do not want others to know about.”
“Like this,” Troy said pulling out a hand buried under the linen sheet. There in his hands laid a golden locket.
“Where did you get that?” his mother exclaimed, placing a hand on her bosom. His mother knew he was a clever one, but was not sure how he found the priceless gift the father had given her. Once lost it was now in the boy’s hands.
“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret,” Troy said with a mischievous glint in his eyes. She raked her hands through his curls before grabbing the locket away from his grasp. He liked it when his mother stroked his mane in her playful gesture.
It was those moments at bedtime that his mother would come inside the room, sit on his bed and tell him stories. Each time he would curl up with his brothers or it would be just him who would listen to the tales. She would always save the ending for the next night. He was hoping that the last story about the boy who never woke up from the sleeping potion would have a happy ending.
“And the boy was finally able—”
This time there was no happy ending. In fact, there was no ending to this tale. His story teller was no longer there to make it all better. Without an ending it just felt incomplete. It sounded all too close to the story of his life.
I should not keep torturing myself with the memories of mother at least according to my brother Apollus. At times I thought he was insensitive and unfeeling. But maybe he was right. But in a few weeks, it would be unavoidable. The Tribute Ceremony was approaching and I could not hide from it even if I wanted to.
I bobbed my head as my Greek tutor spoke. I had to pretend I was listening even though my mind was already outside in the green expanse that surrounded my home. I left my scrolls and books on the couch I sat on for the slaves to put away and rushed to the expanse calling for me. I was looking for an escape. Instead a flood of memories hit me. They were not the terrifying ones from the Quake. Rather these were mostly pleasant. The ones where our family was united and happy. Before Hades took my mother leaving my brothers and me with a brokenhearted father. I closed my eyes waiting for tears to brim. But they did not come. I was ten years too late.
The sound of my name snapped me to reality. I swung around to face the familiar yet harsh tone from my brother.
"What?” I grumbled.
His brownish- green orbs leveled with mines. “Stop idling, and move out the way so the slave can let this horse pass through.” He gestured to the slave trailing behind who was guiding the horse as its hooves swished against the still damp grass.
“Apollus, where is he going with that horse?” I questioned.
He rolled his eyes. “Why do you ask such stupid questions? I am going out to town to meet with friends at the Baths and have some fun.” For us we had our own private baths in the convenience of our sprawling domus. We had almost everything we needed in our residence including our very own latrines. However public baths though were far grander yet too crowded for my liking particularly during the prime hours. I could easily stay within the confines of my home for weeks at a time and be content. But it was a good excuse to go out and meet acquaintances. I needed an escape right about now.
“Can I come too?” Apollus turned back to stare back at his friend Titus who gave him a wave from the roadside. Standing next to him was my oldest brother Barbarius who was motioning for Apollus to hurry up.
“I am sorry there is no more room for you in the chariot.” If Apollus was trying to sound sympathetic he failed miserably at it.
“So, you replaced me with Titus,” I said, stifling the disappointment in my voice. I wished my brothers would stop treating me like a little boy. With each passing day my appearance resembled less that of the boy I once was. But at fourteen years of age I was not yet a “man.” Once Apollus turned sixteen, his status elevated to a new level; a level I now envied. If only I was sixteen! Maybe I would be taken seriously.
“I must be going Troy. Perhaps you can find another horse back there in the stable.”
“Why am I always the one that has to be left out?” I mumbled. Apollus ignored me as the slave boy hitched the horses to his bronze chariot. I watched my two brothers and their friend mount the chariot. They were laughing amongst themselves. The way I used to laugh with Apollus and Barbarius. But those days were long gone. I was replaced.
“Go find your own friends to associate with,” Apollus scoffed as the horses began their gentle stride. I picked up a flat rock from the ground and hurled it at Apollus’ temple!
I blinked again and they were already gone. I just imagined that I threw something at Apollus. I wished I could have actually carried it out. Then suddenly I felt a surge of guilt for even thinking that way. I dropped the rock I had scooped up and I walked towards home when I heard a faint neigh. I decided to veer off into the stable to check for available horses. The smell of manure and hay still lingered in the air as I stepped inside the wooden structure. There was one horse left, sticking its head out the stall to watch me before nibbling on whatever was on the floor. There were no slaves to escort me around. But I was not a child anymore. Besides I was almost fifteen. I unhinged the latch to his stall and walked right into his enclosure.
“Come on boy, I need you to take me to Apathia where my brothers are,” I said, patting his long coarse mane. I gripped onto the reins and hoisted myself over the saddle like I done many times before although this time on the new horse Sagrus. “Come on I need you to move,” I ordered. After a couple of failed attempts, I pulled the reins hard. Then suddenly the horse jerked and galloped wildly out the open gate and into the open pasture.
“Slow down!” I shouted. Just then Odydus the steward walked right into the path of the horse. I yanked my reins to the left causing him to nearly miss a head on collision.
"Halt Sagrus!” Odydus shouted. Immediately the horse jolted to a stop.
“What are you doing riding that horse?” he asked.
“I wanted to ride to town but the other horses are either being groomed or are taken. And besides you do not have to worry about me. I am not a boy anymore.”
“You are still a boy in my eyes. Well at least until you turn sixteen like your brother Apollus, then I can officially call you a man. But since you are the son of Acropolus, my master, it is my duty to protect you and your brothers. Especially after you know what happened.” I heaved a sigh while I dismounted the horse. I did not want to be reminded of it but the daily reminders were inevitable. The Tribute Memorial was coming in a matter of weeks whether I was ready or not. Usually I was good at keeping my emotions and actions in line but this time of year was especially hard. I thought the next year would be easier. But I have been saying that for ten years now.
“Come take this horse over here by the fence.” His voice snapped me from my head.
I shook my head. “What? I thought you wanted me to stay home.”
“No, you can stay home if you want, but if you want to go to town, you have to let me join the ride,” he said cracking a good-natured grin. Before you knew it, we were traveling down the long winding road that led to Apathia.
This was my story and this year I planned to rewrite it.
“Here we are,” called Odydus, as he yanked the horses to a halt. Patrons coming and going from the fuller shops across the road sauntered past our chariot, without a care in the world. We came at a time where the streets teemed with merchants and patrons along the narrow cobblestone roads. I remembered how different things were ten years ago when I walked these very streets. After the earthquake many of the buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. Now it appeared as if nothing happened as life resumed in the marketplaces. Life was moving on. Now I had to keep up.
“It is amazing how some things stay the same,” I uttered softly to myself as I glanced at the marble Basilica jutting over the Forum skyline.
“Now Troy, this is Alexander. This is the new slave I was telling you about. He will be at your service today.” I remembered the older slave he must have replaced. He was an older yet kind fellow. I knew him since I was a small boy. But after he got sick, he was of no use to our family. Father dismissed him. As far as most were concerned an old sick slave was worthless.
I muttered thanks before scurrying to the steps of the bathhouse. Alexander was the newest slave my father bought and I was not sure if he was domesticated yet. He was relatively young, perhaps a couple years older than I, so there was still an opportunity for him to be trained in whatever task was given him. Not like he had much of a choice.
“I will meet you before sundown,” Odydus added. I merely nodded in agreement as I made my way to the entry while he went through another entry for the slaves. It was my first time in a while since I visited the public Baths. It was a marble-cladded building with high vaulted ceilings and vibrant frescoes gracing the walls from floor to ceiling. The baths were one of the few places that brought men of all classes together. As long as you were a freeman your station did not matter. I glanced around the corridors connecting the rooms to see if I could find any familiar faces. Is that Barbarius? I slyly made my way across the other side of the cold baths as I seen a tall muscular man wrapping his towel. As I brushed through the crowd to tap him on the shoulder, he swung around to face me.
“Who are you?” he muttered. My throat went dry before dropping my head. I scampered off only to feel my body smack against exposed flesh. The stranger glanced at me with a look of annoyance while I sputtered an apology for my stupidity. Determined to avoid another humiliating accident, I lifted my chin high and kept moving in step with the crowd. Through the throng I spotted familiar faces. Some of them were high officials that worked with father who would give a simple nod in my direction before carrying on with their exchanges. The younger ones I recognized to be acquaintances of Barbarius and Apollus. Some still had their togas on while the older men paraded around naked from the changing rooms.
“Are you going to change? I have your oils ready.” The slave said in a quiet voice from behind. His sudden emergence startled me. I thought I lost him. That was not the way he should have approached me. I bit my tongue, reminding myself he was still a “new purchase.” I would correct him later.
“Yes. Maybe a little later.” For some reason when I walked into the changing room, I felt out of place. I had come to the baths many times before and I never felt this way before. Why was I feeling this way?
I pushed through my discomfort and made my way over to the cold baths. I dipped my toes to feel just how cold the water was. They really did not add any heat to this. As I got up and walked slowly towards the edge of the pool I hesitated; thinking if I should slowly immerse myself in the baths like in times past. As I stood there watching my wavering reflection, I heard someone say, ”Go in already!” Before I could react, someone shoved me from behind. With flailing arms, I plunged headlong into the chilled water. I clapped the pool floor with both hands. I flung myself to the surface, choking as water sprayed from my mouth.
“Stop thinking and just jump. Feels good does it?”
There was that voice again! I rubbed my eyes and focused my gaze at a crowd of boys who looked to be around my age chuckling along the edge of the pool.
“How amusing!” I muttered, running fingers through my hair now pressed against my forehead. I studied the group of young faces, but I could not pick out exactly who it was that pushed me. There was no use taking on a crowd that size so I stayed in the water, watching them leave one by one. I decided my time at the cold baths had ran its course. Already waiting for me was my slave boy. Good. He was putting himself to good use already without being directed. One of the young fellows laughing suddenly looked back at me before taking a brisk walk back to the changing room. I ignored him and made my way to the next room that housed the warm bath. After some time, soaking, I was ready for the hot baths. Once I walked through the corridor that connected the two rooms, I bumped into someone again.
“I am so sorry. I have been doing that to not just you,” I said. “Please forgive me.”
“Apology accepted.” While subdued I immediately recognized the tone. The young man, who appeared to be my age, seemed unfazed as he turned around to continue on his way. I tapped him on the shoulder. Suddenly there was a face behind the voice.
“Wait!” I blurted. He swung around to face me. “Were you the one that pushed me into the pool?”
He scrunched his brows. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“I recognize your voice. You are the same person that stared at me as I was getting out the cold baths.”
"And. Anyone could have stared at you. There are hundreds if not thousands of people in here.”
“Then why did you leave that group of boys that were laughing by the cold baths?”
“I was not even there!” he exclaimed. Why was he lying? It was clear he was the offender. For someone emboldened to assault a prince, he was not only a coward but a liar.
“You do not have to lie. I saw you.”
He shook his head. “I think you are confused.”
My voice tightened. “I know you pushed me. I saw you do it. If you would just—”
“I think you are seeing things,” he cut in.
“Why did you do it?” I blurted. He stopped in his tracks.
He threw his hands up. “I do not know what you are talking about. Maybe you have me confused with my twin brother.”
“Your twin?” Now his face looked familiar. I saw that face before in passing though never really knowing his name. Except for public events his family never attended our more lavish dinner parties with my father’s trusted advisors and their families. But never had I seen someone else that possessed his same face. Then again, the young man’s dark hair and aquiline features was not much different than many of the young men in this building.
“I want to see for myself before I believe that tale.”
He heaved a loud sigh. “Look I do not have time to debate what you think you saw. Then a tall sinewy man still garbed in a girded tunic came to his side.
“Is anything wrong here?” he asked in a deep voice.
He scowled at me before answering in a tight voice. “Not yet.” He walked off with the man who I presumed to be his slave. Deciding it was not worth the trouble picking a fight I left the room for the quiet hot baths. As I slipped into the shallow waters to unwind, I had a chance to reflect on the going-on of the day. Why did I have to make a big issue out of it? As long as I did not get hurt this was nothing to stay angry over. As I soaked with my thoughts, I saw Apollus and his friends walking past conversing although Barbarius was not with him. I imagined they parted ways.
He stooped down beside the pool to pat me on the head. “Troy? So, you made it after all. Who brought you here?”
“Good for you. Just be home before dark. It gets scary in these parts of town,” he said with a smirk. He got up to share a laugh with his peers. He walked over to one of the Aurelius’ brothers who were around his age. “We should explore the other side of this building where the ladies are. Perhaps we might be fortunate and see some beautiful young ladies.”
I tried to ignore Apollus remark and the lingering envy of the fun and ease he had with his peers. Accompanying Apollus and Barbarius and their friends was no longer an option for me. I had no friends of my own. With the air still hazy with steam, my slave emerged by the poolside. It was time to move on.
My next stop was an oil massage with a bath attendant. After having oils rubbed onto my body, I would have the pleasure of having all the dirt and sweat scraped off with a strigil. After having this procedure done several times, the discomfort became just another routine in life. Day after day. It was routines similar to this that were a part of my comfortable life that kept things predictable.
I was not in the mood to stay long in the open-air palestra where men gathered to exercise. As I was leaving the courtyard, I stared at the familiar face from before.
“There you are. Might I ask how the prince enjoyed his bath?” His voice had a verve that was missing earlier. He knew who I was although I knew almost nothing about him except that he was childish. I ignored him and kept on walking towards the shade of the portico.
Undeterred he began again. “I can understand if you are upset. I apologize for pushing you earlier.”
I broke my silence. “So now you admit your error?”
“Well yes…I have not seen you since I pushed you into the cold baths. You should have seen your expression!” He let out a laugh.
“That was rather funny,” I said plastering a grin. “But really who are you?”
“Sorry, I apologize for my rudeness. My name is Romeos. And you must be Troy. I suppose I did not get a good look at you before pushing you,” he chuckled.
“So, who was I speaking to before, I thought that you were…”
“A twin?” he completed. “You must have met my brother Julius.”
“He did not seem to be as light-hearted as you in playing practical jokes.”
“Why do you say it as such? I did you a favor.” I looked at him bewildered.
“I did not need help going to the pool if that was your reason.”
“I did it because you just stood there, so uncertain of yourself. Sometimes you do not have to always think about everything. Just do it. In any case, did you enjoy the cold-water Troy? Be honest.”
“Except for the spitting out water part it was but exhilarating…thanks,” I said breaking into a smile. “So, do you really have a twin?”
“Well yes. You still do not believe me?” He waved his hands to and fro before walking towards the center of the palestra shouting, “Julius.” Curious, I tried to follow him before I got cut off by a crowd of mature men entering the gymnasium floors from one of the side entrances. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Troy,” a voice whispered. I spun around only to see one.
“Romeos, is that you?”
“No, I am Julius.”
“But I am Romeos,” said a voice from behind. I took a step back to look at both twins surrounding me.
Julius shared a grin with his brother. “That was a good joke.”
“Yes, you caught me there.”
“I am sorry Troy, for what happened earlier,” Julius said. “My brother can be senseless at times.”
“No, I apologize for overreacting. I did not really believe you were a twin. I have never seen both of you at the same time before, but now I am convinced.”
“Well now that we are all acquainted,” Romeos said, wrapping his arm around my shoulder, “maybe we could make it up to you somehow.”
“You do not owe me anything. Besides we just met,” I added.
“But we know you, Prince Troy. My family talks about you and your brothers often.” Romeos said. It honestly should not surprise me he was saying that. Everyone seemed to know me even if I did not know their name. I suppose that came with being the son of a King. “Would you like to pay a visit to our residence after the baths? I know it cannot compare to your grand residence, but our parents do want to see your face again.” I thought about Odydus. What we would he think if I went off into the company with someone else? Just then Barbarius approached our trio.
“I believe Odydus is waiting for you. It is best not to keep him waiting.” His voice quiet yet deep reminded me of my father; stern and solemn.
“Tell him that there has been a change of plans and I am going with Romeos and Julius for dinner.”
“Father is not going to be happy with that. You know he has special guests being hosted tonight.”
“It is the same officials that are summoned at the basilica meetings,” I said, shrugging.
“There is a new ambassador though. He is not from the island,” he said with heightened inflection. Just then, Apollus strolled by, alone.
“So, what should I tell Odydus?” Barbarius asked, folding his taut arms over his chest.
“Well, if this is a special dinner party, I suppose we can come along later,” Romeos said, turning to Julius who simply nodded. Romeos glanced at me, waiting for my response.
I held my head high. “Tell father I am coming a little later,” I said. Romeos smiled. It was the first time in a long time I was with real friends my age.
Apollus cast me a crossed look. “What did you say?”
“Tell him I am coming later,” I said in a clear assertive voice. I walked off leaving them stunned as I walked off with my new friends and a new attitude.
I went home with them to see their domus in Apathia. When their male slave escorted me to the atrium, I heard their father say in the background, “Who is this boy you speak of?” I gulped thinking that the father already did not like me after how I treated his sons. But once I stepped into the airy space, his eyes brightened.
“Why it is only Troy. We know your family very well. Tell the King, Diodecios extends his greetings to his household,” their father exclaimed.
“My have you gotten taller since I last seen you,” their mother exclaimed coming behind her husband.
“I know it has been awhile. I almost did not recognize your sons for a moment,” I said. I could feel my face flushing.
“I heard good things about you. Your father speaks well of you boys and hopes you can follow in his footsteps. You must be very proud to have a father of such noble character,” Diodecios added.
“What a wonderful ruler he is,” his mother added, grinning.
“Oh…thanks,” I said.
“Oh, is not the dinner for the diplomats this evening?” his mother asked.
“We forgot it was today,” their father said in a rueful voice. “We were ready to depart tomorrow for our business venture. I would love to go but I must be getting ready for the voyage. If only I could send him a notice, explaining my leave of absence sooner.”
“Perhaps we could offer him a letter,” Julius suggested. I was not thrilled to hear that we were now messengers.
“I believe that would work out,” his mother said with a nod. “I did want to see the diplomats especially the ‘foreign’ one,” his mother added wishfully.
“We can go with the boys, and just stay for some time, but I cannot stay too long,” his father said with a sigh. Romeos and Julius exchanged grins.
"To the banquet!”