Once upon a time, there 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?" Troy asked. The young boy scooted closer to his mother, letting his stout legs dangle over the edge of the bed. Their eyes met in the glowing light from his bedside. The wavering flame from the oil lamp gave him light. Light meant safety. It meant warmth. But now it only illuminated the mystery glistening in the golden 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 soft hands through his curls before grabbing the locket away from his grasp. He liked it when his mother stroked his scalp 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—"
There was no happy ending. In fact there was no ending. His story teller was no longer there to make it all better. The story felt incomplete and even worse; troubling. It sounded all too close to the story of his life.
Ten Years Later
The date was fast approaching. Some days were good and others were not so good. But this one he dreaded the most. For others this one day out of the year evoked unpleasant memories. But for him it was the worst day of his life. And he was about to relive that day again at the Tribute Ceremony.
I used to look forward to hearing her stories at bedtime. Whenever she was there she just knew how to make everything better. It will be almost ten years since she died and I dread the day—
"Troy!" shouted a voice from behind.
"What?" I grumbled, turning to face him. His brownish green orbs leveled with mines.
"Stop idling, and move out the way so the slave can let this horse pass through," Apollus said, gesturing to the slave who was guiding the horse across the dull grass still damp with dew.
"Where is he going with the horse?" I questioned.
"Why do you ask such stupid questions?" Apollus asked, rolling his eyes. "I am going out to town to meet with company at the baths and have some fun." For us we had our own private baths in the convenience of our sprawling domus. Public baths though were far bigger yet too crowded for my liking especially during the peak hours. But it was a chance to go out and see new and old faces.
"Can I come too?" Apollus turned back to see his friend Titus standing with Barbarius my oldest brother alongside the cobblestone road.
"I am sorry there is no more room for you in the chariot."
"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 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!
"I must be going Troy. Maybe 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 a slave 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.
"Go find some 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. Oh how I wished I could have actually carried it out. Then suddenly I felt a surge of guilt for even thinking that way. As I walked back towards my palace I called a home I decided to veer off into the direction of the stable to check for available horses. The smell of manure and hay still lingered in the air as I walked inside the wooden structure. There was one horse left, sticking its head out the stall to observe me before nibbling on whatever was between its teeth. There were no slaves to escort me around. But I was not a child anymore. I was fourteen going on fifteen. I unhinged the latch to his stall and walked up to the black horse.
"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. "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 desperately tried to steer the horse away narrowly missing him.
"Halt Sagrus!" Odydus shouted. Immediately the horse came to a stop.
"What are you doing riding that horse?"
"Well, 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 again. The memories were still painful.
"Come take this horse over here by the fence." By the fence was an unhitched chariot.
"I thought you want 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 with a smile. We shared a grin together. Before you knew it we were traveling down the long winding road to Apathia.
This is the start of my story. And this year it I planned to rewrite it.
"Here we are," called Odydus, as he motioned for the horses to come to a stop. I tried to familiarize myself with my surroundings in case it got dark by the time I left town. The street scene was teeming with merchants and patrons conversing at the stalls lining the narrow stone-paved 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.
"It is amazing how some things stay the same," I uttered softly to myself as I glanced nostalgically at the marble basilica across the Forum courtyard.
"Now Troy, this is Alexander. This is the new slave I was telling you about. He will be your assistant today, so just pretend he is not here as he goes about his business and carries your belongings," Odydus called from behind.
"Thanks," I muttered, while I quickly made my way up the steps to 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 a choice anyways.
"I will meet you before sundown," Odydus called from behind. 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 since I visited the public baths. It was a marble-cladded building with high vaulted ceilings and lively frescoes that graced the walls from floor to ceiling. The baths were one of the few places that brought men of all classes together. 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 turned around with wide eyes.
"Who are you?" he muttered. I quickly walked away in embarrassment. Still in stupor over the embarrassment of my stupidity, I bumped into another half-naked man. He glanced at me with a look of annoyance as I managed to weakly say, "Sorry." Familiar faces ebbed through the moving throng. Some of them were high officials that worked with father who would give a simple nod in my direction before carrying on with their conversations. The younger ones I recognized to be acquaintances of Barbarius. Some still had their togas on while other walked around naked nonchalantly 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.
"Certainly. Maybe just a little later." For some reason when I walked into the changing room, I suddenly felt out of place. I had come to the baths many times before and I never felt this way before. I leaned against the wall torn whether I made mistake coming here.
I finally 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 stumbled headlong into the chilled water. Fully submersed, I shifted my weight, just barely missing impact against the pool floor. I jolted up spitting out water from my lungs.
"Stop thinking and just jump. Feels good does it?"
There was the voice again! I rubbed my eyes and focused my gaze at a crowd of boys around my age who were chuckling along the pool's edge.
"I guess they find this funny," I muttered, running my fingers through my damp curls. I perused the crowd of young faces, but I could not pick out who it was. After I waded in the pool for a bit I climbed out the pool with my slave boy holding my towel. 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 continued 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, plastering an uncomfortable grin.
"Apology accepted," said the young fellow in a calm collected tone. My mouth dropped. 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." He stopped to turn around to give me his full attention. "Were you the one that pushed me into the pool?"
"What are you talking about?" he asked, scrunching his brows.
"I recognize the voice. You are the same person that stared at me as I was getting out."
"And. Anyone could have stared at you. There are hundreds if not thousands of people in here," he said with a shrug.
"Then why did you leave that group of boys that were laughing by the cold baths?"
"I was not even there!" he answered in a brisk tone. Why was he lying? It was clear he was the offender. For someone emboldened to assault a prince, he certainly was behaving cowardly.
"You do not have to lie. I am not mad at you."
"I think you are confused," he said, shaking his head.
"I know you pushed me, but I do not appreciate you trying to deny it now in my face."
"I think you are seeing things," he said, as he began walking away.
"Why did you do it?" I blurted. He stopped in his tracks.
"I do not know what you are talking about. Maybe you have me mixed up with my twin brother."
"Your twin?" I felt my brows rise. Now his face looked familiar. But never had I seen someone that possessed his face, not that his dark hair and aquiline features was any different than many of the young men and boys walking about.
"Yes, I have a twin," he said with a half-smile.
"Oh yes I believe that tale," I said a mocking tone.
"Look I do not have time to debate what you think you saw. And about the apology, I did not mean it!" he said with an edge to his voice. 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.
"Not yet, he is not worth my trouble," he said, glaring at me. "I just need you to bring my articles of clothing to the steam room." I walked off stunned not knowing what to think. As I soaked in the hot baths, I pondered how foolish I felt for making a big issue of something that now seemed so petty. As long as I did not run into him again I could pretend nothing happened. As I soaked with my thoughts, I saw Apollus and his friends walking past conversing although Barbarius was not with him.
"Troy? What brings you here, or should I say who brought you here?"
"Odydus has brought me. And yes I too deserve a chance to escape to the baths."
"Good for you. Just be home before dark. It gets scary in these parts of town," he said in a condescending voice. He walked off laughing with his friends wearing his striped toga.
I could hear Apollus say to Titus, "We should explore the town before it gets too late. And maybe we might be fortunate and see some beautiful young ladies." I sighed to myself. Accompanying Apollus and Barbarius' friends was no longer an option for me. I had to make my own friends somehow. 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 linger long in the open-air palaestra. 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. I ignored him and kept on walking.
"I can understand if you are upset. I apologize for pushing you earlier."
"So now you admit your error?" I asked softly.
"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 so funny," I said with a dry laugh. "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? You must have met my brother Julius."
"He did not seem to be as light-hearted as you as in playing practical jokes," I replied.
"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 hesitant of yourself. Sometimes you do not have to always think about everything and just do it. Did you enjoy the cold water Troy and be honest."
"It was a shock, but exhilarating…thanks," I said breaking into a smile. "So, do you really have a twin?"
"Well yes. Do not believe me? Julius over here," he called as he walked across the exercise grounds. 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.
"That was a good joke," Julius told Romeos, grinning.
"Yes you caught me there." I agreed with a smile.
"I am sorry Troy, for what happened earlier," Julius said. "My brother can be silly 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 by having you over? 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.
"Tell father I am coming a little later," I said proudly. 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 dumbfounded as I walked off with my new friends and a new attitude.
I went home with them to see their lovely home in the city of Apathia. I was introduced to their parents who were well acquainted with my father which was no surprise. Everyone knew him. 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, now growing dimmer by the evening skies, his eyes brightened.
"Why it is only Troy. We know your family very well. Tell the King, Diodecios extends his greetings his way," their father said.
"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 said grinning.
"Oh…thanks it means a lot," I said trying to avoid looking at them.
"Oh is not the dinner for the diplomats this evening?" his mother asked. Romeos smirked.
"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!"