Chapter 16: Foul Play
I was too petrified to make any sudden movements. I fell for the bait and now I sat twiddling my thumbs as the chariot jostled over the cracks in the road. I needed something to distract me. Anything. My wandering eyes drifted into the men and women spilling into the narrow streets. The common people were too busy perusing the tables lined with ceramic pottery and jewelry. As the group of young elites chattered amongst themselves, I was contemplating possible escape routes. Buildings made of stone and marble rose to higher heights competing for space around the cramped roads. I braced myself as the chariot jolted to a halt. I looked around the street corners, checking for signs of Gaius. Men in flowing togas spilled onto the streets, moving at the same steady pace. So far Gaius was nowhere to be seen.
"Priscilla!" Athena exclaimed. Her voice rang in my ears. I looked at the direction her dainty finger pointed towards. It was a young lady with her locks pinned up carefully. A blue gem sparkled from her necklace. Priscilla. Athena was the first to make her way off the chariot. The only thing keeping her from running was her long purple stolla that she had to hold up. Athena crossed the road to greet Priscilla with quick pecks to the each side of her cheek. But she was not alone. Titus was trailing behind her. My jaws tightened when we made eye contact.
"As always it is wonderful seeing you two again," Athena gushed. "I am so happy for you Priscilla. You finally found someone that was your match. Congratulations on the engagement."
"Thank you," Priscilla said in a subdued voice. "I suppose it was just fate."
Athena flicked her hand in the air. "Whatever you say. Please do tell me the details for your upcoming wedding. I want to hear it," she said batting her eyelashes.
Priscilla faltered a moment, eliciting an eye roll from Titus. "Well we are going to have it on a lucky month perhaps—"
"In the springtime," he interjected. "My goal is no later than April. She insists to push it later," Titus said. Priscilla pursed her red lips together before mustering a weak smile.
"Greetings Titus," Maximus called from across the street. He waved them over to move towards the front of the line. "Perhaps you two could join us. A friend has not shown up yet, and is perhaps not able to make it."
"I am not in the mood for the theater this evening. Perhaps another time," Titus answered.
"Come in line by me Athena so we do not lose our place in line," Maximus said, motioning to Athena as some other well-dressed men joined the line. I could hardly look Titus in the eye without scowling. I switched my icy glare from Titus to Priscilla, before deciding that the imposing archway leading into the theater was more interesting to look at.
"I will leave you two to enjoy the play. I would want you to make your husband happy," Priscilla said as she hugged her friend.
"It is not too hard to do. Men are simple creatures," Athena whispered with a smirk.
"Well most are," Priscilla added. She then turned around to link hands with Titus but not before an awkward glance over in my direction before she walked off.
"You know Priscilla and her husband quite well, right?" Maximus asked.
"Not that well," I said coolly. "So what is the play that we are seeing?" I said trying to change the subject.
"I think it is called "Silent Prey" although this is my first time seeing it." I merely nodded as the doorkeeper finally admitted the growing throng that snaked out the door and onto the street. We were admitted to sit in the lower tier, close to the floor of the open air auditorium. I sat to the left of Maximus as Athena sat directly to the right of him with the other two fellows sitting quietly next to me. As I asked the other fellows what the play was about, they only could give me a vague answer.
The other friend was distracted while the other managed to reply. "You will have to watch to find out what the story is all about." His voice had a nasal quality to it. I wondered if it had anything to do with his rather long pointed nose that was a prominent fixture on his face. While Athena and Maximus whispered back and forth I decided to watch the crowds trickle into the theater from the entrances between each section. With the crowds easily numbering into the thousands, it was the largest assembly I had ever been to that I could recall. I was just one person in the sea of faces that spanned into a semicircle. As the last stragglers found their seats on the upper tier the red curtains were pulled back.
The opening scene began with two actors, with one playing the female part, as they hailed the birth of their son, who was supposedly bundled in cloth-filled basket. As the touching scene ended, the curtains closed again as the stage men quickly went around the stage to remove the props to get ready for the next scene. I joined in with the pleased crowds filling the space with a uniform applause. Through the corner of my eye I saw Maximus whisper into the ear of Athena. She turned to him wearing a cheeky grin. He replied by draping a hairy arm around her shoulder. I rolled my eyes at their display of affection. Maximus caught my stare but continued to snuggle with Athena. I tried to push the pestering feeling of loneliness like a stone inside my heart, and concentrate on the play.
As I came to learn from the first opening scenes, the Greek play was about an emperor who dies suddenly from a fatal illness. Without a single male heir to his name the next person in line would be the right hand advisor to the king. However as the play progressed the other high-ranking official to the king grows jealous and tries to usurp the throne away. I watched intently as the next opening scene began with the jealous official delivering his soliloquy.
"…Time to show him I am the one that was destined to take up the throne, because there is not enough room for the both of us in this domain. Let oh Cestus take a taste of the bitter malice of his medicine. Time to wipe the last foe that stands before greatness!" came the last cold calculated lines exclaimed through the opening in his mask. Reaching into his purse girded on his belt, he pulled out a small black bottle with tiny engraved letters I could not make out.
I leaned into Maximus to whisper. "Is that poison?" His green specked eyes widened in alarm. The hand that was draped over Athena dropped limply to his side. Feeling stupid for blurting that out, I quietly focused my eyes upfront.
"Of course it is poison, what do you think it is?" muttered the same annoying nasally voice from Maximus' friend. As the scene progressed, I watched intently as the poison was being added to the golden goblet that would be given to the newly appointed king. The scene was eerily tense as the guests laughed and dined at the feast. The golden vessel was now mixed in with the other vessels that the cooks were carrying over to the round table. But which one was the poison? It was surrounded by other golden goblets of the same size. I watched Maximus as he shifted in his seat. Before the scene came to an end, Maximus leaned into the ear of Athena to whisper something I could not quite make out. Then abruptly he got up, gesturing for Athena to do the same.
"Where are you going? The intermission has not come up yet?" I whispered to him as he tried to navigate around my legs.
"I need to stretch my legs and catch some fresh air," he mumbled. Reluctantly, Athena followed behind him as they exited out one of the side entrances. Here the play was about to reach the climax and now he wanted to get up to stretch his legs and get some fresh air? I shifted in my stone seat which was heating from the evening sun that hung over the western sky. Then suddenly a cool breeze billowed across the open air theater, chilling the sweat dribbling from my brow. As the king was about to drink his red wine, the scene ended with the curtains being closed followed by the announcement that the intermission would begin. With the play being almost over I exited out the side door into the shadowy hallways to find Maximus and Athena. They had not returned to their seats and they were the ones who were my ride… or our ride including the two other fellows who I still had no idea what their names were.
"Are they coming back?" I muttered aloud. As I walked past a group of older men, I saw his two friends talking amongst themselves at the end of the corridor. I was hoping Maximus was not far off but he was nowhere to be found.
"Maximus is not coming back to this play," the one with the nasally voice stated matter-of-fact.
"I knew we should have gone to see a Greek comedy, Romulus. This did not suit his taste," his friend replied.
"You know Caius he probably thought Demas was supposed to play his father," Romulus teased. So that was his friend's name.
Caius shared a chuckle with his friend. "Well in the play the king's friend was jealous of the new king and that sounds awfully familiar with how Maximus' father was not appointed to a higher position as he had hoped."
"That explains why he was so uncomfortable. And now it is awkward that he invited Troy to see this play. You have to 'wipe your opponent,'" Romulus mimicked.
"I certainly hope no one gets any wild ideas from this play," Caius said, smirking. They had not noticed I was standing there behind them for most of the conversation until Caius looked over his shoulder.
"Oh Troy, there you are. How did you enjoy the play?" Caius asked, clearing his throat.
"It was quite interesting. More realistic than I thought it would be. Can I ask you men a question?" Caius and Romulus both shrugged in unison.
"Is Maximus coming back?"
Caius scratched his hair which was cut just before they spiraled into curls like mines. "I am afraid not. I think he was not feeling well."
"Oh. He told me he needed to 'stretch his legs and get some fresh air.' I do not even know what to believe of him anymore. I heard what you two were talking about. Is he feeling guilty about something?" I asked.
Romulus shared a concerned look with Caius. "We were just poking fun of him. He is a good friend of ours."
"That is a very serious thing to joke about," I said crossly.
"Look Troy. Why do you, Romulus and I return to the auditorium? The play will begin in any moment," Caius said, smoothing things over with a smile. I just stood there vacantly.
Romulus looked me in the eye. "Do not worry about Maximus. He would never think to do that. You have to be pure evil to do that. Anyhow are you going to watch the rest of the play or not?" he asked. I honestly would have declined but perhaps they were my only way home.
"Very well," I sighed as I followed them back to our seats to finish the play. As the play resumed, all eagerness to see the ending had melted away as I slumped in my seat hoping for it to end.
Grandfather was there standing in the atrium. His arms folded against his chest. "Troy, where have you been?" he asked. I just walked through the vestibule and already I was being interrogated.
"I went to see a play. I thought I told one of the slaves to tell you I would be away?"
"He must have left out the part when it would end. Your dinner is cold now." His usual warm voice took on an icy edge.
"Sorry. My 'friends' insisted I stay for the ending."
"What friends?" came a resonant voice coming behind grandfather. It was father.
"Well it was Caius, Romulus, Athena, her husband Maximus, and me."
"Since when did you become friends with Maximus and his company?" father asked, raising a brow.
"Since the blacklist came out, and Romeos and Julius cannot speak to me anymore," I answered bitterly.
"The blacklist is meant to send a message to everyone that I will not tolerate corrupted men. It is for everyone's own good even if you do not see it that way. I am here to protect you Troy. That is my job." I rolled my eyes in annoyance.
"What is with the change of attitude now? I would say that your new company is influencing you for the worst," father said, glaring at me.
Grandfather chimed in. "What is wrong Troy? You have not been yourself lately. You are more distant, I can see it in your eyes the same way I looked into Barbarius' eyes." His golden-green eyes filled with worry.
"I am well. Can I eat now?" I said trying to mask my growing irritation, which no doubt seeped into my tone.
Grandfather's shoulders shrank. "As you wish," grandfather said in a gentler tone. As I walked in the summer triclinium, Apollus was wiping the last sticky crumbs on his lips.
"Back so late!" he said in a cutting tone. "Hopefully you are more on time when father hosts the dinner party later this week."
"If Gaius is going to be there, then you can leave me out," I said plopping onto the other side of the couch with him.
"He was not invited," Apollus said solemnly.
"Grandfather told father what you told him. Father is not pleased with the news. But until he can hold a private meeting with Gaius tomorrow, he is possibly the next to be added to the 'list.'" He looked up to note my stunned reaction. "Why are you not happy? Is that not what you wanted?"
"Well yes. That is good news. I am just surprised," I said, shaking my head.
"Hopefully your little prediction from your dreams is correct, because I would hate to see another false accusation happen. This is serious business." I nodded solemnly as I stared down at my plate loaded with sliced pieces of fish, with olives surrounding it. I felt a twinge of uncertainty. Why was I feeling unsure of myself now? My dreams had not misled me yet.
Apollus rose from the couch. "I will see you in the morning," Apollus said. He whistled on his way out the dining hall. I had taken only small morsels of my sliced fish, accompanied by bread and cheese on a separate plate. I could feel every bump of my meal as it traveled down my throat. A huge lump welled in throat the moment father entered the room.
"You and I have to talk." I put down my knife to look him in the eye. Just like his dark eyes bore into mines.
"I was hoping to avoid this but there is no other way around it. I know you distrust Gaius. I think all of us wanted to trust him after all the good he tried to do. Like I told Apollus, I will simply have a talk with him to get a better understanding of everything, from the ship that he sponsored to the incident that happened to you. I hope this discussion will dispel fact from fiction so we all can get on with our lives and find closure. I want to believe you Troy. I really… really do."
A smile found its way on my face. "Thanks."
I was dressed in my fitted toga which was mostly white with the exception of a deep red sash that ran diagonally across the garment. It was said to be another dignitary party, which was something I was starting to grow accustom to. Much fine work was underway so the palace would be spotless and ready for guests. However sadly I knew Romeos and Julius would not be attending this time like the ones in the past. I wanted to play the investigator and clear the name of their father Diodecios, and then maybe, just maybe we could still be friends and not strangers.
As Apollus and I welcomed the guests, nothing could prepare me for who would enter in next. Titus came sauntering in with his white toga, his head held high. The half-hearted greeting lay hitched in my throat. Trailing in his shadow was Priscilla. She passed me by, leaving a rush of flowers and exotic spices to tease me. Her dark hair which was curled, bounced around her shoulders while the rest of it was plaited and pinned into submission. She was beautiful before, but today she was radiant. I could not peel my eyes away from her scarlet colored chiton that seemed to flow with her quick movements across the tiled floor. Then she stopped by the tiled pool to look around the room. Through the sea of guests our eyes met. The black eye makeup only highlighted the pain in her sky blue eyes.
I had no choice but to leave the atrium. It was painfully uncomfortable for the both of us to be in the same room. I tried so hard to remove the animosity that lay in my heart for her and Titus. I should be happy for them. I decided to step into the left wing of the atrium away from the other dignitaries. From here I could privately collect my composure while Apollus forced a handshake with Titus. I just wanted to be happy for them, but I could not. I was not even happy with just myself. Odydus our faithful steward escorted the young couple through the red curtains, giving a fleeting glimpse of the garden. After a while I wandered into the garden. Here I could be alone with my thoughts, except for the occasional guests that happened to take a leisurely stroll to observe the array of flowers and herbs.
"Troy. There you are," Apollus exclaimed. "You are not acting like a good host."
I shrugged my shoulders. "This is not my party," I said coolly.
"You know what I mean. His tone lightened at the next words. "Anyways you should have a happy time. Father suspended Gaius from sponsoring anymore ships." I looked up at Apollus with eager eyes.
"There are no charges against him yet, because Gaius insists he had nothing to do with it and there is no solid evidence against him. However father decided it was best not to invite him because he knew how you felt about him. Suspicions are growing, yet father will make his final decision whether he is to be put on the blacklist by dawn tomorrow," he said in a hushed voice.
I smiled for the first time that evening. "I suppose soon everyone will know who the real Gaius is," I remarked slyly.
"I suppose so. You were right and deep down inside I knew he was a snake," Apollus added.
My grin expanded. "Well that made me feel a little better."
"Well anyways dinner is about to start so I am going to head into the dining room," Apollus said.
"All right I will meet you there." I walked down the dark hallway that was lit with wall torches. Then I ran into Priscilla again. I froze.
We both stared at each other not certain what to say. She flashed me a forced smile. My vacant gaze softened.
She broke the silence. "Hello." I replied with a simple nod.
"I know I am engaged to Titus and I know you had feelings for me, but we have to get used to running into the presence of each other. I know you probably detest me. I am sorry about what happened in the forest. Truly I am," she said heaving a long sigh.
I sighed. "It is hard because I really, really cared about you, and you knew that then. And I realize you do not feel the same way but that is understandable because you are happy and that is what is important. I should be happy for you." I exhaled a breath as her face softened. "You look beautiful tonight." She smiled before looking down at the floor. Even in the dark her cheeks were reddening.
"Thanks," she said softly.
"Sorry. I should not have said that. It was inappropriate to say that. I can understand if you are offended. I should just move on and realize we are just friends."
She picked up her legs into a stride. "No, not at all," she said in passing. I crinkled my brow.
"Is everything well with you Priscilla?" I knew the voice from anywhere. Titus who waiting outside the curtained entrance to the dining hall, swooped to her side. She merely nodded before he wrapped his arms around her waist. Suddenly the warm light of the hallway was quickly blown out as darkness enveloped me. I followed the two who pushed through the curtains. As the faint sound of music bled through the rustling curtains a hard thump echoed behind me. It sounded like the time I hit the ground in my failed attempt to walk. Who fell? I turned around to see a young man lying face up. Without hesitation I scampered over to the limp body. He was less burly then the usual guards I saw around the house. To me he looked like an ordinary house slave. Today he must have had guard duty. I pressed my hand against his chest. I pressed harder only to feel the faint rise and fall of his chest.
I shook his shoulders. "Wake up!" I whispered. I lifted his head only to find a knot at the back.
"Somebody help!" I exclaimed. My voice carried into the hallway but all I could hear were the faint sounds of the harp and other musical instruments resonating from the walls. How thick were these walls that nobody could hear me shouting? Then I heard whispers at the end of the corridor, past the kitchen.
"Let us just be done with this father," a familiar voice muttered.
"Do not worry this should not take long," came the wiry voice of Gaius. My mouth dropped. But they were banned from the guest list. How did they get in? Unless they snuck in—this was bad!
I could hear Maximus say, "We have to leave now! I heard someone shouting." The light from his oil lamp bounced around the corner. "It sounds like Troy." A panicked breath escaped my throat. I retreated from the lifeless young man before me and hid behind a full size marble statue. I matched his pose, hoping that the darkness would take care of the rest. Competing with the approaching footsteps was the sound of my heart growing louder, drowning my thoughts. Maximus stopped in front of the statue. Then I heard some dishes fall in the kitchen. He scampered off in the direction he came. When he was out of sight, I ran down the corridor in the opposite direction, passing a female slave who was coming from the kitchen. I heard her gasp but I did not stop to explain as my legs picked up into a panicked stride.
I turned the corner, only to greet my brother head on.
"Watch where you are going!" he snapped. He stroked his chin while he examined me through his lashes. "Why are you running?" he demanded.
"Gaius and Maximus did something to the guard who is lying on the ground and he needs help," I said in one breath. I clearly got the attention of a few slaves who had stopped their household duties to move in the direction I was pointing.
Barbarius shook his head. "What!"
"We need to get help for the guard. You have to believe me," I pleaded.
"All right." His expression darkened. "Where are they?" he snapped.
"I think they escaped from the side entrance. I will warn father and the rest of the family."
Barbarius nodded. "Be careful Troy!" he warned. I barged into the dining hall, jostling through the thick curtains to see all three tables filled with men and their wives reclining on the couches. Most were still chattering amongst themselves, smiling and laughing as they indulged on the exotic delicacies presented before them. I brushed past the cooks balancing platters of figs with leaves decorating the dish. Coming towards me was a slave boy balancing a tray with golden goblets.
He stopped at the table where father and the rest of my family sat. All I could muster was a small strangled sound. "Father."
He looked up briefly only to clasp tight to the goblet of wine that waited to intoxicate him.
"Do not drink it!" I blurted aloud. He slammed the cup on the table. Apollus who had his elbow propped on a pillow, jolted up like a frightened animal. Suddenly all eyes darted in my direction as whispers spilled from their lips.
"I just thought that we would make a toast first," I said, plastering a grin.
"What is the meaning of this?" Father snarled under gritted teeth. I swooped over to his couch.
I leaned into his ear. "Gaius is here. I think something is wrong with the drinks."
"What are you talking about? He was banned from attending," father muttered.
"Are you saying he came uninvited?" Apollus snapped. I wished coming uninvited was his only sin. As the whispers grew louder, father's countenance was reddening.
"What is wrong with the drinks?" grandfather asked holding a golden goblet in one hand.
"Poison," I answered.
Barbarius and another guard stormed the room. "No need to panic everyone." The music stopped.
Apollus stood up from his seat to face the wary faces. "Everyone just remain calm. Everything is being handled," Apollus said in a calm clear voice. Barbarius and the guard hurried towards father's table as they escorted him out the room to inform him what was going on. Then the whispers turned silent. I glanced across the room and could see the pallor faces glancing around. Even Priscilla was paler than usual as her fleeting gaze met mines. Odydus and another man entered the room.
"There is only one way to find out if the drinks were poisoned because all the drinks look identical. The cupbearer will need to sample the drinks," Odydus said swirling a ladle in one of the drinks. The cupbearer sniffed the drink he held. Then he moved the cup to his lips.
The first one was the King's cup, followed by grandfather's cup before anyone else took another sip. I held my breath for what felt like an eternity as he swallowed the wine.
"The palace is on lockdown!" father announced as he reentered the dining room. As the physicians rushed the fallen guard to the resting chambers, the other armored guards in the background quickly scoured our home, searching the perimeter for the perpetuators of this fiendish crime that Gaius and his son had long escaped into the night.
"Everyone should not panic. Drinks are being inspected for safety precautions. There is no need to worry. Everything is all right. Order is established…"