Chapter 7: Wedding Bliss and Melancholy
The Messenger had arrived.
We were reclining on the couches placed around the table when the porter approached the entry to the triclinium. Apollus was still chattering to Barbarius who looked like he was half-listening as he sucked the meat off the bones. Resting my chin in my hands, I waited to hear the words of the Messenger. He cleared his throat, as if hoping that would stop our chatter. He smiled a little before composing himself to read. I knew the message must be good.
"Dear household of Acropolus, we invite you to share in the joining of two souls; Lydia the daughter of Craetus to Maxis Aurelius as they celebrate their lives together in wedded matrimony. It is the honor that you accompany us at our home in Cyrene, located at the junction of the Via Appia. It is to be held at midday on the twenty-fifth day of the fourth lunar month." As the Messenger finished his closing remarks, I glanced at Barbarius who looked annoyed.
"It is always a blessing when two souls are bound together in marriage," Grandfather said.
"I agree, father. I know Craetus was going to choose wisely in obtaining a husband for his daughter. It is only the passing of time before the younger sister Priscilla is to be wed," Father added.
"It seem so quick since they got engaged. It was barely a month ago," I said, furrowing my brows.
"Even though the process may seem quick to us this has been in the works for some time, Troy. It is only a matter of time before one of you gets married," Father said staring at Barbarius. I glanced at Barbarius once again, with his blank stares he was so well known for. I often wondered what was going on behind his dark brown eyes set deep in his brow.
"That is if he finds his princess," Apollus said, snickering. It had begun to occur to me if Barbarius had ever found love before. Then again who of us have ever been in love before? Or would it really matter?
"I think with all good things they come in time," he began quietly. "And Apollus your princess is as elusive as your vanity!" Apollus looked down at his plate as we watched Barbarius leave the table. I wanted to laugh right now. For the first time in a while Apollus had no clever rebuttal.
It was the week of the wedding and everyone was eagerly getting ready to attend the event. After school I would go off alone to check on Shabby. Grandfather already knew about Shabby but decided not to make an issue of it for he knew that the dog posed no real trouble and slept outside the palace. We were inseparable the times we were together for he was a loyal friend I could rely on, and was able to provide unconditional love. However the day of the wedding, I would have to leave him behind with Alexander before traveling to the port city of Cyrene. We were taking two chariots for the journey. Grandfather and father would ride together being guided by a slave, while Barbarius, Apollus and I would ride together.
We left that morning with the sun still hanging low over the pale blue sky. We should be jabbering—at least Apollus— about what guests would be attending or the elaborate festivities. Instead there was an uncomfortable silence filled with heavy breaths and the rhythmic clattering of hooves. I sat back watching the familiar landmarks of Apathia; the Forum surrounded by the Basilica, grand temples cladded with marble come and go. Soon the cluster of stone and marble would blur behind us as open pastures and vineyards stretched over the hills and valleys for miles.
"I hope those birds keep their belongings to themselves," Apollus remarked. I looked up at the heavens which was mostly clear except for a few scattered clouds. Crossing directly in the path of the pale sun was a line of them. Birds.
"Remember when we were young Barbarius and those birds excreted their waste all over you?" Apollus said, holding back a smile. Barbarius heaved a loud sigh.
"Why must you bring that up!" he grumbled.
"Remember how as children we did not make such a vexation about it. I know as children we used to let things pass over us. What I want to say is I did not mean to offend you at dinner some nights back," Apollus said softly. Barbarius remained silent. His folded arms rested against his chest.
"I just wish things would remain the same between us when we were children, but I know it cannot," Apollus continued with a sigh. He was right. We were all changing but would it be for the better or for the worse? Not too long after that sobering conversation, the road took a dip, leading us into Cyrene. It was the same road that would lead us directly to the bride's home. As the chariot came to a halt outside the domus, a man stepped outside the door, waving. A few other men and women followed his lead, standing shoulder to shoulder. The small children stood on their toes to point.
"Welcome young princes," Craetus said, grinning. "What an honor to see all three brothers together." He prostrated before us. Apollus' mouth parted into a wide grin, exposing his dimples. I followed his lead, plastering a grin that felt too tight. "The ceremony is about to begin soon!" he announced beckoning us to join the rest of the guests huddled in the atrium.
The low murmurs and whispers subsided until the only thing that could be heard was the rustle of curtains. I was standing so close to the mother, that I could hear her suck in a breath. Emerging from the garden was the bride ushering a collective gasp from the crowds. Her powdered face was partly swathed in a fiery orange veil fastened with the same pins that held her hair into elaborate knots. She made no effort to lift her white tunica as it swept the smooth marble. In the corner of my eyes, I noticed where Apollus' eyes had wandered. I followed the path of his gaze to the tight knot resting on her waist. Her hips shifted against the flowing garment, as she crossed a path that split the crowd in half. Following her lead was Helena, who was about her age. Her rosy cheeks swelled with pride.
Already at the altar were the priest and groom. He scratched his laurel wreath resting on his crown before taking the bride's hands into his. It was at the altar where the contract would be signed between the husband and wife and their ten closest friends and family members including our father. With both the bride and the groom's hands clasped together, they uttered their vows in mere whispers I could not hear.
"I wish they would say it loud enough for everyone to hear," I whispered to Apollus.
"It is the same chant you hear at all weddings: 'Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia.' " (Which means when translated: When and where you are Gaius I am there Gaia. Then the bride and groom were seated on stools facing the altar as the priest offered the sacrifice meal to mark the occasion. We all looked on as the slaves brought in the honey cake for the couple to partake. Then the announcement was made by Maxis' father, Felix that the wedding banquet would begin.
The banquet was held at the dining room with some additional seating in the garden. While I made way over to the dining room I could not help but notice the same familiar faces; the family of the groom reclining at the same table with the bride's family along with the bridesmaids. I caught a glimpse of Romeos and Julius walking with their father before taking a seat at another table. I was so distracted looking at who was at the banquet I knew, I hardly ate my dinner. The twins were once again sitting with Silus and another lad who attended the Grammaticus. I found myself reclining with Apollus and Barbarius who were eating alongside Titus and some of their friends that attended the rhetoric school.
"Where is Gaius? I assumed he would make his appearance at the banquet. I thought I saw his son Maximus," Apollus said between bites of his honey cake.
"Do you think he was invited by Felix?" Titus sneered.
"His absence does not surprise me," Barbarius chimed in. "Gaius has also been missing at the council meetings at the Basilica. He has not been the same since Felix got the appointment as the right-hand man of father," Barbarius said matter-of-fact. The others nodded in agreement. I just reclined there simply agreeing. I was just there, but nobody really noticed me. The only thing that sparked my interest was the talk of Gaius who was missing. Could he be one of the officials that strived to get ahead by obtaining the most gold? If that was the case he did not get enough. But I dare not bring up such an accusation at the table. What proof did I have anyways besides the words of a slave?
As the banquet came to a close, it was time to begin the procession to the home of the groom who also lived in Cyrene.
Lucius, Maxis' oldest brother, raised his goblet in the air as he announced it was time for the guests to begin the march. Maxis, Lucius, and their youngest brother Marcus would go ahead of the crowd to meet the bride as she made her way to his home. According to tradition, three men were selected to escort her in the procession. As the bride rose from the table she made her announcement.
"Silus, my cousin, will you do the honor of leading me with the torch?" Lydia asked.
"It will be my honor," he said, grinning. The other two chosen to stand by her side were my two older brothers leaving me the odd one out.
"To my new home," she announced. Her mother Phoebe hoisted the bride over her shoulders as they made their way to the doorway leading back into the gardens. Waiting on the other end of the doorway, Maxis suddenly seized Lydia by the arms. The guests rose from their seats to watch the spectacle unfold as Phoebe tried to pry his burly grip from her arms. But she was no match. Lydia squealed in laughter as the bride was now cradled in the arms of her lover.
"I will let you go," Maxis whispered to her with a mischievous grin. He placed her upon her feet before scampering off. The crowd burst into spontaneous applause and cheers before the procession spilled out into the narrow street.
We continued marching down the Via Appia, to the amusement of the local residents who stopped to point or wave. I caught myself mimicking Apollus; stealing side glances at Lydia while the two held hands, sharing small talk and grins. To her left, was Barbarius. His expression was vacant, as if tuning out the banter between Apollus and Lydia. Silus remained unfazed as he stood in front of the trio, holding the burning torch. Despite the tiring march I found it peculiar the way Apollus interacted so casually with the bride. For most people—at least me—it would be horribly uncomfortable to walk beside the same girl you teased and flattered. If he was uneasy escorting the bride he certainly hid it well. I matched my stride with theirs as I played over in my head what I was going to say.
"Congratulations Lydia on your marriage."
Apollus and Lydia were still talking freely as if I did not exist. I would just have to speak up then.
"Congratulations Lydia!" Both stopped their conversations mid-sentence to look at me. Apollus sucked in his bottom lip, while suppressing a ridiculous smirk. Good. I got their attention! Even if I embarrassed them in the process.
"Oh, thank you," Lydia said, blushing.
"That was awfully abrupt of you," he said rolling his eyes. "Wait till she enters her new home."
"Your well-wishes are fine with me," Lydia interjected, easing my worry with a coy smile. "You did no wrong in my eyes Troy." I sighed in relief.
"We are almost there," announced Craetus. Our journey was coming to an end. We had walked through the streets of Cyrene, passing marble buildings and grand estates overlooking the sea. The sun was just beginning to set painting the evening sky in pink and violet ribbons. We watched as the procession chariot with the dignitaries: Father, Grandfather, and Felix turned the corner. Silus waved his torch, signaling that we had indeed arrived at the house of the groom. With Lydia surrounded by her sister Priscilla, her friends Helena, Athena, and her mother, they hugged and consoled her worries. With one part left to seal the ceremony, she gathered the wool threads and placed it on the threshold on the door of Maxis. With her husband waiting to let her in, she must say the right words. All her whole life she was coaxed into what to say and how to prepare herself as a bride, but nothing would prepare her for the bundled nerves that likely still lingered. In a melodic way she sang: "Where you are Gaius, there shall I be Gaia." Her husband appeared out the door, lifted her in his arms, and whisked her away inside. The crowd clapped and cheered. I joined in clapping to out of impulse, although I could see myself in her eyes; even for a moment, apprehension of not being sure if she truly knew what she was doing.
The door opened wide, revealing the bride and groom standing shoulder to shoulder. Silus handed her the torch that was slowly burning out. With one quick blow, she blew the remaining embers and hurled it into the guests. The guests scrambled particularly the bridesmaids. I looked back at one of the girls who claimed they got a piece; it was her younger sister. As some of the guests were admitted inside such as close family, others continued merrymaking outside with large stone jars set along the edge of the street. As I walked by to see where it would be served, I ran into Romeos and Silus.
"I thought you did not want to be in our group!" he sneered.
"I am just passing by. Just make sure you know who your real friends are Romeos," I muttered aloud before walking away. Tired from the arduous walk, I leaned against one of the stone jars filled with wine but not without someone noticing. At the corner of my eyes, I met her piercing gaze. Her eyes glowed like ice-blue rings as she sauntered towards me. She was the younger sister of Lydia and at fourteen she was looking more and more like her with her raven-hair and pale eyes.
"What are you doing leaning against the wine?" she asked.
"Oh sorry. I was just tired from the walk," I said, trying not to stare directly into her sea blue eyes. She nodded.
"You know I could not help but notice you at the ceremony. I have seen you before in times past. Are you not Acro—?"
"Acropolus' son," I finished.
"Why yes of course. Troy, right?"
"You guessed right," I said with a dry laugh.
"I am guessing you know my name already." Her face softened into a smile.
"Priscilla," I said softly, tasting the name as it floated off my tongue. Now I knew her. I had seen her at the dinner party the night Lydia made her engagement public. I had seen her in past times accompany Lydia when Apollus made his way over to their group. I remembered her even when she used to wear her hair in two braids as a girl. All those times she was just a stranger lurking in the shadows of her older sister. But now her striking beauty made it impossible for her to blend into the night shadows.
"It is a wonderful occasion for celebrating, but it looks like you are not enjoying it as much."
I furrowed my brows. "What makes you say that?"
"You look sad. I could see it in your eyes." How was this girl I barely knew already trying to read me?
"Am I really that open of a book?" I replied, shaking my head. She nodded. She just confirmed my worst fear.
"Being the third son of the king does put your life on display," she said matter-of-fact. "I know it must be a heavy weight you bear. Your face tells it all." I was upset that I was not a good pretender like Apollus who was good at plastering grins, or Barbarius who was very hard to read with his stares that you can get lost in.
"You think you know me," I said with a snort. "Do you really think you can understand me?" I asked, feeling myself get defensive. If she was going to talk about my feelings it was not going to happen. Not today anyways.
"Well. There is a lot I do not know. Maybe others could understand you if you let others get close to you. That is how relationships grow and become something beautiful," she said, her gaze wandering to a young couple stepping inside the house. I shook my head, smirking.
"What?" she said with an incredulous grin. "You do not believe in love?"
"To be honest I never been in love, and I have no experience in these…feelings. I do not know if even the bride and the groom are in love… Everything is happening so fast," I sighed. "We were just children a few years ago. Life was much simpler back then. And now we are worried about marriage and falling into roles that will follow us into adulthood."
"I can relate with your words," she said, giving her plaited hairdo a shake. "Life was much simpler when I was a girl. I used to remember the days my sister and I would play with our wooden dolls, or catch fireflies in the summer evening." She looked up from her sandals. "People change. Things change and become more complicated."
"Why does life have to be so complicated?" I sighed. She shrugged.
"Maybe if we just accept our roles we are given, maybe it would not be so hard I suppose."
"That is easy for you to say now. Soon you will be married off to a wealthy suitor of your parent's choosing." Her blue eyes were set into deep thought.
"That is how it has always been. That is what society expects of a woman. You just do not question it. You just do it," she said wistfully.
"I suppose we cannot change our destiny," I said meeting her gaze.
"Perhaps not," she said in her wispy voice. "Who knows though Troy? Maybe there are things you can control." She smiled. "It was nice talking to you. I have to head back inside. I do not want to miss the music and dancing," she said with a glimmer in her eyes. "You are ahead of your time. Hopefully we will meet again."
"It was a pleasure talking to you. Maybe you do understand me," I said quietly. She stepped inside, leaving me with the few guests that lingered outside the house. I took a drink from one of the standing stone jars thinking it was red wine. It burned my throat leaving a bitter taste. To not make a scene, I disappeared around the corner to the back of the house, away from the stares and idle talk. At the back of the domus was a hedge of bushes to spit in. I looked up. Nobody saw anything. Nobody was here. Just ahead of me was a clear view of the sea reflecting the golden light from the vanishing sun. Stretched between the sloping earth and the sea was a narrow strip of beaches. On the northern end of the beach rested Cyrene's bustling port. The city was the center of maritime commerce and trade while Apathia remained the civic and political foothold. But tonight Cyrene would be sleeping like the rest of its citizens.
Just then I saw two figures crossing the beach. Barbarius? Who is the other man? The other figure gazed in my direction as if he could hear my thoughts before turning his attention to my brother. Was that the diplomat? What were they doing here? I was curious to hear their conversation so I descended down to the beach only for their voices to be muddled by the sounds of the waves. However my better judgement told me it was best not to get too close so as not to give myself away. Next thing I know they both walked off, heading up the trail, leaving me alone on the beach as the orange glow from the sun faded and a deep blue coated the skies.
I plodded through the sandy shores before plopping onto the sand dunes sprinkled with blades of grass. I sat there, watching the waves lap against the shore, before retreating with stolen sand and rocks. I wished Shabby would mysteriously find me. I certainly could use his company. But my eyes grew heavy from waiting as the gentle sound of water lulled me to sleep.