Chapter 2: Royal Dinner
The atrium was abuzz with whispers.
Who is this foreign diplomat?
What does he want on our shores?
Did you get a chance to meet him?
Foreign guests were a rare spectacle. For some it evoked suspicion. For me it aroused curiosity. I tuned out the voices as I strolled in with both twins on either side of me. Their eyes brightened with delight at the assembled guests lounging on the ivory couches. I followed the path their eyes wandered towards. There in the middle of the open floor plan, the impluvium glistened with fresh rainwater from the day before. The twins gazed at the statuesque goddess that rose from the pool. The fading sunlight that shone through the skylight illuminated her smooth rounded form. To me it was another dinner party; lavish as it was. This was neither the first nor the last. But this one seemed different from the rest.
"You found a new family?" Apollus whispered in my ear.
"No," I muttered and kept walking. The guests were mostly associates of father consisting mostly of political officials I seen give speeches at the Forum to the wealthy merchants that accompanied their wives. Each woman appeared to outdo the other with their intricate plaits woven into elaborate knots. I watched them gossip like most women did, as sparkling jewels dangled around their throats. Their husbands were all powerful men who equally loved to chatter about themselves.
I was encouraged by Apollus that father wanted us to engage in polite conversation with the nobles. Glancing across the atrium I noticed father talking to one of his top officials Gaius. Romeos had slipped the rolled up letter in my hand and now it was entrusted to me to pass this important message. I walked past father and attempted to slip it in his hands without anyone noticing. But it slipped through his hands while he gestured! As I bent over to pick it up, someone stepped on it and it stuck under their sandal! Frantically I tried following the guest who was weaving in and out the crowd.
"Excuse me," I squealed, while trying to get his attention. As the letter dropped off his sandal, I finally snatched it off the ground. I walked back to father as if nothing happened. This time he was busy conversing with a new face. This must be the diplomat. I waited. And waited some more. And waited! The atmosphere was tiresome and dull as I listened to words that floated above my head. It was rude to interrupt conversation between grown men but I had grown restless. I nudged father with no avail. It was as if he was ignoring me.
"Excuse me," I whispered. Thrusting the letter against his wrist finally, he stopped mid-sentence. His deep-set eyes bulged then narrowed in my direction.
"I am busy Troy. If they wanted to send me a letter, why could they not tell me the message in person?" he hissed.
"I am just the messenger…" I said with a shrug.
"Save it Troy, I have not designated you Messenger," he said sharply. "I will read it later." I walked away disillusioned before Romeos' father walked past me.
"You boys did not really need to send the letter after all. I hope you did not bother sending it." So now you tell me! I sat down on an empty ivory couch off into the vestibule. I had to find someone to engage in polite conversation with. I finally saw Romeos and Julius emerge from the growing throng, although I was not in the mood to talk to anyone.
"Troy, I have been looking for you," Romeos exclaimed. "Did you still have the letter?"
"No. Father has it. Turns out it was useless."
"We are sorry. I hope you do not think we set you up."
"No," I said with a sigh, although in my mind I could not decide on whether I could fully trust them or not.
"Our father did not want to make it known of his business venture to Rome, especially since they will gone be away at sea for a couple of weeks and will be absent from his duties," Julius said in a matter-of-fact tone.
"And besides it is a private matter, not to be discussed openly at a feast. But I assume they have some understanding just now," Romeos added. He faltered, craning his next to see if anyone was approaching us. "You know he still needs permission to leave the island," he said lowering his voice to a whisper.
"But your father is fairly trustworthy; I could not see why Diodecios needs written permission to leave the island."
"I would think so too…" Romeos voice trailed as Apollus came strolling by with a plastered grin.
"Greetings, Romeos and Julius. So good you young fellows could come. Dinner is about to start soon for the guests."
"Thanks," they seem to say in unison.
"Let the party begin," Apollus said, with a glint in his eyes.
The guests were escorted by the slaves as they walked past the main atrium through the tablinum, past the interior gardens and into the dining room that faced the garden. I was designated a specific seat on the couch next to Apollus and Barbarius to recline. The slaves brought lettuce leaves, and hard-boiled eggs for appetizers, followed by the main course of fish, oysters, and stuffed dormice drizzled in sauce with bread, and sweet wine. The mood which was rather stiff suddenly loosened up as everyone indulged in their wine. It was exciting and nervous lounging at the same table as the diplomat. I wished Romeos and Julius could have sat with me, but the table was already "reserved" for important dignitaries.
"This will be the first time I get to meet your sons in person," the diplomat said, holding his goblet.
"I believe you met Barbarius, my oldest son," father said, beaming.
"It is an honor to be in your presence, sir. My father says your name is Marcus Fabius."
"Very well, you remember correctly." The diplomat nodded before raising a chin to Apollus.
"And you are…" he began.
"Apollus," replied with a proud smile. "It is an honor that we could throw this wonderful banquet to show our gratitude for your travels. I am sure you have many tales to tell us tonight as my father has his," Apollus gloated.
"You are such a poised and handsome young prince. I am sure your father must be proud of you boys."
"Actually men," Apollus corrected. I rolled my eyes. If anything I thought it was bad taste to correct him. "Men have distinguished themselves from boys by their maturity and ability to reason intellectually."
"You make a fine point. My apologies to you "men". You must study at the rhetorical schools."
"Yes, the two oldest do," father pointed out, reaching for his goblet.
"Very well for their progress and what about this one next to them; is that another son? I do not believe I have met him yet."
"This is Troy," father said interrupting me before I could spit the words.
"So how old are you Troy?"
"Um, I am 14," I said, raising my wine cup to my lips. As he went on talking with father I looked wishfully across to the other table where Romeos and Julius were lounging at the next table over, smiling and laughing. Once I finished the rest of my main course, the slaves brought in a new platter of cheese, clusters of plump figs, and honey cake. I found myself staring at my wine lying dormant in my goblet. At least there is wine to cheer my spirits. I gulped down the red wine, letting the fluid flood my throat. It was stronger than usual. I jerked my head up to cough.
"Are you well?" Apollus asked, patting me on the back.
"Good. I think I must have got the wrong goblet, because the wine is usually more diluted."
"Or maybe you need to learn how to drink wine correctly," he said slyly. I ignored his biting remark and nibbled on figs so as not to draw any more attention than I already did. As the sun went down and everyone was finishing their meal, the music began. The flute and harp players entertained the guests as wine was passed around. Even Apollus got a chance to strum his fingers over his new harp. The melodic notes made me forget some of my troubles earlier. I looked around hoping to find Julius and Romeos to talk to but they were nowhere to be seen. I slowly retreated to the quiet garden, the same garden my mother had once looked after. I looked up at the open skies now glittering with stars.
"I just want to belong," I asked upward as if the gods could hear me.
"Troy." A deep rich voice called from behind. I turned around startled, thinking that someone was actually listening. There he was; grandfather! Except for a few more wrinkles he still looked the same since I was a young boy.
"I did not see you earlier," I exclaimed.
"I came a little later," he said in a subdued voice. "Why are you not with the rest of the guests?"
"I do not think they will notice my absence. Not like I have much to say anyways," I said, shrugging.
"Ah, but you do have a lot to say."
"No one would want to hear it. I would rather not risk saying or doing anything stupid. That is why I like the garden. I am not expected to carry a conversation. I can be myself here."
"All I can say Troy is that you still are trying find yourself in this world you were born in and I know it is not easy, but you will come into your own. I know since the death of your mother… Oh I am so sorry I mentioned it. I know how alive the memory of your mother is," he said in a rueful voice.
"No need to shield me anymore," I said, dropping my gaze.
"If you like you can go to your room if you are unhappy. This is your home," he chuckled. He had a point. Just as I was about to turn around and leave…
"Someone would like to make a special announcement," called a guest. Curious, the both of us returned to the atrium where the music still lingered. The man gestured for the musicians to stop playing their instruments before turning to the amused guests.
"My daughter Lydia has been asked to be given to marriage to Maxis Aurelius. Please stand Lydia and your fiancé so we can give a toast to this momentous occasion," he said holding up his goblet, beaming. The raven-haired girl fidgeted in her seat before rising with the young man beside her to join the toast. The crowd smiled and clapped for the young couple. I barely knew the girl except that she was only a year older than me. She gave a half-smile as her hand smoothed the tunica that fit snugly over her curves. I could not help but clap with everyone else with their plastered grins. Earlier I yearned to be an adult, but for the first time my life seemed to flash before my eyes as suddenly it hit me that one day, sooner than I realized, that I would be in her shoes.
As the night went on, the guests slowly dwindled until a few remained. By now Romeos and his family were long gone. I was kept awake by the intriguing stories everyone seemed to have including the tale of the diplomat about rough seas right before they could even start throwing their anchors down.
"The waves picked up, thrashing against our boat," he said sounding dramatic. "Our men were uncertain of how far we were from our destination. It seemed as if the seas were trying to steer us away from the island. I have been told this island is shrouded by mysterious waters that you do not always encounter. It is as if the island wanted to remain undetected. I do not know what other explanation that could explain this strange phenomenon. Perhaps this island is hiding mysteries," the young diplomat snickered.
It seemed true, there were so many legends told about this island. There were secrets that were left unveiled. I knew the island sat on rich resources that many nations would love to get their hands on. But there existed strict control over what was exported but little control over what was imported. Even more so was who could leave the island. The island for many of us was all we knew. For me it was the only world I knew and only a few could leave it. I never could quite understand why, and whenever I asked Barbarius he would avoid the question. It only stirred my imagination of what it must be like to explore the outside world. I sat on the couch imagining being out to sea, sailing deep into the blue. Then the mood of the discussion turned somber as the topic abruptly turned to the past earthquake nearly ten years ago.
"I remember that day so clearly, as if it happened yesterday," one guest chimed in.
"Why you know the legend, do you not? The day Artemis cries, the ashes fall, and that has not happened in a long time. But according to legend after a major earthquake, that is an omen for a shaking to occur in this generation that will shake this island to its core," an official by the name of Gaius interjected. My hairs rose at the nape.
"That is just a child's tale," Barbarius scoffed.
"That is what the cynics say," grandfather said, his voice laced with warning. "If anything that earthquake taught us never to be comfortable with this life we think is so certain."
"I remember we were leaving the basilica when it happened," an official by the name of Felix chimed in. "Just as we were leaving out the front door I suddenly felt this strong tremor beneath my feet. I yelled inside for everyone to leave the basilica. The steps beneath me crumbled before my eyes as I tried to jump down from the building. Several men tried to file out the building as the building began to shake from side to side. I had never felt so scared since when I was a boy when a strong earthquake shook the island. You could hear screams as people were scrambling outside. You could hear buildings give way as I ran out to the public square looking for anyone I knew in the commotion. It is something that still haunts me today, knowing that some of my fellow associates never made it out the building," he said in a solemn tone. Barbarius, who was growing uneasy, decided to excuse himself. As people told their stories of survival, I began to relive the nightmare ten years ago.
"Troy, stop!" Odydus called out to him. "It is too dangerous!" His tone was more worried than angry.
"I want my Mummy!" Troy said, stomping his feet.
"Tell us they made it safe," Apollus said, looking up at the steward with wide earnest eyes.
"I do not know. But I know your parents are looking for you…"
"Mummy!" Troy screamed as he perceived the pained whispers underneath the rubble. It felt like his heart stopped.
"Someone help her. Please!" Troy said, as tears started streaming down his dusty cheeks.
It was too much. The memories were still raw as I listened to Odydus recount his tale. I glanced around the room. There was hardly a dry eye in the room. I looked at Apollus who quickly turned away from my view. Father stood up with a calm yet blank expression as if he was the only one left unaffected. While he moved on I was still hurting from the deep void that consumed me.
"We must not mourn the past, but try to learn from those events, and live each day to the fullest," Father said breaking his long silence. Troubled, I scampered off into my room. I threw myself onto the bed, burying my head into the downy pillows. I had to be strong like father. Even after all these years her death still deeply pained me even though with each passing year it became more bearable. I missed her so much but I could not cry. I learned to repress the feelings. I could still hear the voice of my father say that very day right before the quake, "Never mind that, you do not need to be crying, men do not cry; understand. Wipe those tears, and be a big obedient boy and go home with your brothers." Tomorrow, I would put on my strong face, to brave another day.
"Good morning," called my slave. No response.
"Master, it is time to awake and get ready for your day. You will be late for your instruction," he said nudging me. I woke up, rubbing my eyes still heavy with sleep.
"Are you well, Master?"
I replied with an inaudible grunt.
"You look so tired. Do you need more time?"
I literally dragged myself out the sheets. With the help of my slave I would change into my outer garments, wash my face at the pool, say my prayers at the family shrine branching from the atrium, and come to the table.
I was the last one to arrive for breakfast. At first there was dead silence as everyone was finishing up their breakfast. Finally grandfather broke the silence.
"You just missed the diplomat; he departed before you came."
"Oh, is he leaving the island already?" I asked.
"No. He is off to take a brief tour of the island with your father. He has to begin his day early," Grandfather replied.
"Why is he here?" I asked.
"Maybe to spy on us. What do you think?" Barbarius asked.
"I do not think we need to jump to a conspiracy theory quite yet. After all as the future prince I would welcome…"
"You are just a prince, Apollus. After all I inherit the throne remember," Barbarius pointed out. Apollus frowned.
"I do not know his full intentions for coming here," Grandfather interjected. "But he is the son of a rich Roman senator who wants to do business with us and perhaps would like to better "understand" us by discussing our relationship with Rome."
"It still does not seem right. He is trying to study us so he can find our weaknesses. You know he is after something," Barbarius said in a wary tone.
"By his deeds over time can you truly judge the character of a man, whether he is noble, or good-for-nothing, fair or cruel, trustworthy or dishonest," grandfather uttered.
"What would you say about our character, grandfather?" Apollus asked, cocking his head towards Grandfather.
"This is the time when your character is still forming. This applies to all of you. You grandsons of mines are developing into different characters. Be careful though of the man you are becoming on the inside now, because that is the kind of character you will possess well into life. I believe you all will assume your roles as destiny sees fit. Barbarius you are to be the next heir to the throne, so more responsibility and leadership will be asked from you. You will be head of all things including commander of the sentinels. You make the laws and you are the absolute personage in the island." Barbarius nodded in agreement.
"I will try my best to live up to your expectations," he said, nodding.
"And Apollus, you have the role of being 2nd to the throne as a co-ruler, or right-hand man for your brother. You must be his chief advisor, giving him the advice he needs and opening and ending the meetings at the council. You are also the one who enforces the laws of the land, and you assign military officials to instill order on the island. You are the one who gathers information that is essential to bring to the attention of the king."
"I can fulfill that role," Apollus said.
"I wish you men both successes in your coming days of training."
"What about me, grandfather? Do I not have a role too?" I asked.
"You are 3rd in line for the throne and can also have a part in mediating the council meetings." That was it? Was there anything else I could look forward too?
"You are the mediator, almost like the middleman. You are able to interpret the laws. But that is all I can tell you for right now, there is still an evaluation of your "gifts" and skills. I must be going but remember the words I spoke to you all and to not lose sight of your role." With that grandfather dismissed himself from the table.
"When can I expect to know?" I asked aloud.
"Maybe sooner than you think," Apollus replied.