Chapter 17: The Beginning of the End
Gaius had been summoned to take a seat in the office chamber. It was a small annex nestled on the top floor of the Grand Basilica away from the public legal transactions that took place on the ground floor. Waiting for him was Acropolus and Apollus who shared a bench. Gaius entered the oval room with a half-smile only to be greeted by silence. He took his seat quietly on the bench facing the two dignitaries. The King was the first to break the silence.
"There was a time I could trust you," the King began in a calm voice. "That I could count on you as one of my loyal officials but somewhere Gaius I believe your motives became treacherous."
Gaius folded his hands over his lap, his lips pursed. "So you listened to your son to make the judgment?"
"No," the King countered with an edge to his voice. "I make the final judgments but I cannot ignore the simple fact that you always mysteriously have connections to so many vile things. Look Gaius, the letters you forged," he exclaimed holding up the parchment to his face. "They look very similar to your handwriting. Does this letter saying Barbarius is 'lost at sea,' look familiar?" he questioned.
Gaius shrugged. "So are you going to put me on your scary blacklist?
The King's expression darkened. "Worse."
"You know I helped you compose it. So how does that look? Seems awfully satirical!" A bitter laugh escaped his throat. "You would rather believe this irrational fear of your son than your own official? Sounds awfully weak even for you." He balled the parchment in his hands. Apollus looked at the parchment clasped tight in his father's trembling fist. Fresh blood colored the King's cheeks a cherry red.
Acropolus then turned to his son. He struggled to keep his voice steady. "I think you better leave now," he muttered. Without question Apollus sprung from his seat and left the room.
His dark eyes narrowed back on Gaius. "Depart from my face and do not come back. Ever! When you leave here your belongings will be confiscated and will become the sole property of the King. You have no place on the council. Not even your home!" he said through clenched teeth.
"I knew you wanted my belongings. You want everything. This insatiable hunger for power and greed consumes you," Gaius retorted. "The truth is you need me Acropolus."
"I have no need for you. Truth is I do not even know you anymore. Darkness has consumed you and I refused to accept that till last night. But you have pushed me to no other choice." He rose from the bench. "You know what you did at the dinner party and if it was not for my son I would be dead!" he snapped, pointing a finger in his face. "Guards escort him out now!" he shouted. The sound of boots shuffled along the tiled floor. Just as Gaius sprang from the bench two guards materialized on either side of him.
Acropolus cleared his throat before continuing in a controlled tone. "I am not going to let you hurt anyone else including me. You will be sentenced to the Hole until your execution. Your son will follow suit." Coldness replaced the anger that once laced his words.
"This is not the end of me, Acropolus. I did more than slip poison in the drinks. I guarantee you that someone you love will die!" he snarled as the guards escorted him out the room.
The King pointed to the guard to the right. "Muzzle this man from making any more threats!"
"It is not a threat it is a promi—"
Gray clouds blocked the sun above, casting shadows over the atrium. Anias' speckled hands rolled up the scrolls that contained countless hours of my instruction. I looked up at the sky through the opening in the ceiling before saying, "Do you think a storm is coming? We have not seen much rain come through in the past weeks, let alone month."
"I suppose," he said in a dull tone. "The crops would greatly appreciate it. Although this is to be expected for the dry summer season."
"Of course," I said quietly. I forgot how the seasons worked. Earlier it was cold and damp. Now it was hot and dry.
"Anyhow Troy, how is that guard doing?" He faltered before making eye contact. "I heard what happened."
"He is doing well now. He was out of it for an hour or two you could say. But do not worry he did not lose his memories," I said, forcing a laugh.
"That is good to know it did not end up any worse than it did." He secured the rolls underneath his armpit.
As he got up from the couch, a lingering question still gnawed at me. "Do you think I will ever be able to study at the rhetoric school? I know I am still catching on to my studies in grammar, arithmetic, law and the other subjects. I feel I have come a long way."
"Yes, yes you have," he said softly. "The day is coming soon when you will join your peers. You will be conducting debates, carrying out judicial decisions and learning how to carry out your role in life." Learning how to walk, relearning everything, and wicked Gaius consumed my waking thoughts—with Gaius taking over the previous worries. But for the first time in months I began to think seriously about the very role I must have been preparing for before I almost lost everything.
"I have heard through father that I was to be the Mediator or something, although it is still quite unclear to me what it all entails."
"Ah yes, the mediator. That is the one who mediates peace treaties, trade disputes. The one who mediates the law to the other councilmen. You would also proceed over the courts. The rhetoric school is where you need to be along with the training I could supplement. However these past few months we had to review old course material just so you can become equal with your peers. The horse accident really interrupted your father's plans."
"You mean when I was chased off a horse by Gaius, who tried to kill me," I supplied in a brisk tone. Anias' stitched his brows together as his eyes narrowed at mines. His face told me he did not like what he was hearing. My eyes blinked away the perturbed look on his face.
He shook his head before lamenting, "I am so sorry about that. I mean I had no knowledge of such."
"I thought you knew."
"I never thought that he would do such a thing!" he said shaking his head profusely.
"I never thought so either," I said softly. "I just hope justice meets up with him."
His close-set eyes softened with pity. "I hope so too." He left for the day, leaving me with my lesson to memorize for tomorrow. I stared at the wax tablet of notes until my eyes glazed over with fatigue. I rested my head on a lone pillow on the couch. Moments later when I awoke, the room was darker from the overcast. A strong east wind whistled overhead.
"Odydus," I called out. No answer. He left already. Why would he be here Troy? The only answer was the rush of air. A male form graced the curtains screening the atrium.
Assuming it was one of the slaves I began, "There you are. I was hoping if I could refresh myself at the baths…" He turned around at the sound of my voice. His gray eyes left me frozen in my seat.
I dropped the tablet on my lap. "How did you get in here?" I asked, tossing it on the other side of the couch.
"One of the servants let me in," he said shrugging. My jaw locked into place.
"What do you want?" I spat.
"I wanted your trust, but you were too stubborn, too smart for your own good. Now I just want you to just keep your little mouth shut and not spread anymore venomous lies!" he snapped.
I shook my head. Rising from the couch, I could feel the heat rushing to my cheeks. "You have no right to be here!" I said coldly. "You need to leave at once. My father would not be pleased." I scurried to the right wing eliciting a rapid response from him. Before I could take ten steps from the couch he yanked my arm, pulling me towards him. I swung my free arm, connecting with his jaw. He winced, loosening his tight grip. I made a dash only to feel cool fingers lock behind my throat. I gasped at the sweaty fingers leeching onto my throbbing neck.
"I guess I have to kill you, do I," he taunted. I tried to wiggle free from his strong grasp only to feel a blade appear in front of me, parallel to my throat. I gulped in air as his right hand gripped tighter and tighter. Sides of the room went black as a scream lay hitched in my throat.
"I want to watch you suffer. Like my father suffered," he whispered in my ear. His hot breath only renewed my fight.
"Agh!" he screamed. Salty blood stained my teeth as I bit into his hand. As he winced in pain, I elbowed him in the ribcage, forcing him to crumple to his knees. It was not enough to do major harm but enough time for me to make an escape. As I dashed to the curtains, a knife impaled the paneled wall to my left. I pushed through the curtains, bursting into the study.
"Gaius is after me!" I shouted. No response. Then the realization hit me. I was alone. Nobody would hear my cries. While I pushed the table to block the entrance, another blade pierced through the other side.
"Troy! Wake up." I opened my eyes, only to find Gaius smiling back at me.
I screamed, throwing my hands up to shield my face.
"Troy, wake up!" A cold hand gripped my shoulder. I jolted out the couch shielding my face. When I realized the hand was no longer touching me, I peeked through the spaces between my fingers. A sea of brown and green met my frightened gaze.
Apollus' next words were softer. "Troy. It is only me."
My mouth gaped open. "How do I know for certain anymore?
He leaned in so that the only thing I could see in front of me was him. "Look at me Troy. I would never hurt you. I am not the enemy. I am your brother." My eyes searched for truth in his eyes, truth that the dream had ended. Apollus retreated from my line of vision, as if his words of reassurance were not enough. As if I was a monster. Unless he thought that was what I was thinking about him.
"I know that," I assured, bringing a sigh of relief from Apollus.
"You had another bad dream did you?" Apollus questioned. "Gaius is going to be taken into custody. You have nothing to be worried about."
"That is easy for you to say," I muttered. "Inside," I said pointing to my crown, "he is thirsty to avenge."
Apollus stitched his brows together. "Was he trying to kill you in the dream? Is that why you were frightened to see me?" he asked. I nodded, confirming what he feared.
"He haunts my dreams. The dreams are only getting more intense. Gaius is out for blood. And nobody is safe," I said breathily.
"Father is doing the best he can Troy to keep us and the residents of Aegea safe. Thankfully though, no one drank the wine from the dinner party last night."
"What about the cupbearer?" I asked.
Apollus' lips quivered into a frown. "He is very ill because of it. But at least we did not partake of it."
Suddenly grandfather trudged inside. He was home earlier than I expected. Somehow he must have got done with his duties, or at least I hoped that was what it was.
"Back so soon, grandfather," Apollus remarked.
"Yes, I know," he answered. "Feeling too drained for the day. I dismissed myself from anymore duties for the rest of the day. I am not a young man anymore," he said plastering an uncomfortable grin.
"You just need some rest," Apollus suggested.
A weak smile rested on his face before it vanished.
Something was not right. I looked up at as he shuffled across the tiles. "Are you all right?"
"Just tired, Troy. No need to worry about me," he replied. While grandfather dragged his feet across the tiles I looked over at Apollus.
Apollus smirked. "He should have asked are you well?" My face hardened.
"Sorry. I am not helping am I?" No I wanted to let out. I was going to save him the tongue lashing. My face already did the talking for me. "I will talk about something else," he continued "like the briefings including the blacklist. It turns out both Gaius and his sons are have been added. I need to look into the trial proceedings for next month and—" he said as he pulled out a huge scroll.
"Do you ever think sometimes you are unsure of your role?" I interjected.
"No. If anything I inherited the role. I am ready for the responsibility. You do not have to doubt me. I have never been so certain," Apollus snorted.
"Actually I inherited the role." A resounding voice filled the airy room. It was Barbarius.
Apollus rolled his eyes. "Here we go again," he muttered under his breath.
Barbarius stood facing the pool of water. "Even though I am the firstborn, you were the one that was given the role. I know I was the one that acted foolishly," he said sighing. "I just thought that you were not strong enough for the role, but I misjudged you on what I thought you lacked. You really handled that tense situation calmly," Barbarius said.
"Why thank you. I never meant to steal your position. You know that right?"
Barbarius stood there with a stoic face before pursing his lips. "I know you did not steal the crown. I gave it away. If father deems you fit for the role, I cannot argue against it. You can have it…all the glory you want." Apollus looked at Barbarius apologetically as he handed Apollus the garland crown interwoven with dried up leaves and vines.
I looked up at Barbarius. "You are the firstborn. I was not surprised why you had such a hard time adjusting to Apollus taking the glory."
"I know," he said softly. Suddenly a slave came dashing into the room.
His arms flailing as he stammered, "M-M-Miletus f-f-ainted." Before he could finish his words Barbarius abruptly rushed to the direction the slave pointed to which was the left wing. Apollus followed suit, leaving me to follow on their heels. Just before his bedroom, my worst fear was realized. Grandfather was sprawled on the floor.
A gasp escaped Apollus' lips.
Barbarius crumbled to the floor beside his body. "Wake up!" He shook his shoulders only for a low moan to escape his lips pressed on the tiles.
I knelt down beside him. One hand rested on his shoulder, with my mouth poised at his ears. "Grandfather, please wake up," I whispered. "Get up. I know you can do it."
Barbarius and Apollus attempted to pull grandfather up to a standing position as he mumbled incoherently. His knees buckled as they part dragged, part carried him. Somebody please tell me this is all a bad nightmare. Please.
"He is slipping again," Barbarius mumbled. As Miletus upper body was off the ground, he slowly slid under the clutch of Apollus. I pinched myself thinking I must be still dreaming.
"I got you grandfather," I said as I rushed in to help him up on his feet. Another slave rushed in to see if we needed help, as the female slave that tended to me went to fetch a nurse.
"Grab his feet!" Barbarius ordered. Barbarius grabbed his upper body while Apollus grabbed his legs as they hoisted him off the ground and carried him to his bed. Moments later a female nurse came to place a damp cool cloth on his brow. She pressed her fingers against his chest.
She bit her lips. "I could hear his breaths but they are shallow." Barbarius and Apollus exchanged a silent look. They tried to conceal it amongst themselves but I recognized the look of fear. The nurse placed her gangly fingers across his wrist, checking for a beating pulse. We stood on each side of him, holding our breath.
"What is the cause of his fainting?" Barbarius asked. "It is unlike him to have such a fainting spell."
"I am not certain, but—"
"What do you mean you are not certain?" Barbarius snapped.
She faltered under his glare. "It could be a number of factors," she continued. "Did he have anything to eat? Did he complain of headaches?"
I looked at Apollus as he shook his head. "He ate a little bread for breakfast before setting off for the day. He did not mention any headaches. He did say he was tired. Perhaps he had a bad night of sleep. Otherwise I do not know," he said softly. If he did have a bad night's sleep it was probably worrying about the disaster the dinner party turned out to be. Worried about his drink—
"Tell me this is not happening. Tell me to wake up again," I entreated.
Apollus looked at me before pointing at grandfather on the cot. "This is real Troy."
How do you know anymore? I glanced around the room, my eyes darting from Barbarius, to Apollus, and then the nurse. I could read the confusion and angst across their pained faces as Apollus patted grandfather on the shoulder. Barbarius briefly dismissed himself from the room. Perhaps he would spread the word about grandfather's untimely illness. Then I considered Apollus' words. He was right. I was fully awake, only wishing I was still dreaming.
Low scratchy moans came from deep within grandfather's throat. As the nurse shifted the damp cloth on his forehead, I slowly approached the bedside to see him stirring.
"Grandfather, can you hear us? Please squeeze my hand if you can hear me," I said melding my hand with the limp one that dangled from the cot. A tinge of warmth pressed against my hand. I smiled.
"I know you hear us old man," Apollus laughed nervously. His wary eyelids fluttered open. Tuffs of white hair stuck out in all directions. His eyeballs roved wildly at the faces staring back at him.
"Yes," he croaked. "I heard you all."
"Welcome back," Apollus remarked. A grin erupted across his face. I hovered over him to give him a hug. His arms wrapped around me, as I fought to regain my composure. I pulled away.
Grandfather centered his eyes on me. "It seems a bit ironic, that here you were in a position much like myself in the bed four months earlier. Now I am the one looking up to you and wondering what just befell me."
"Apollus, Troy, father is on his wa…" Barbarius voice trailed. We watched his mouth gape open.
"How are you doing grandfather?" Barbarius asked, attempting to put his jaw back in place.
"I still feel weak, but I am fair," grandfather said with a smile. Barbarius heaved a long sigh as his lips curled into a frown.
"There is no need to be frowning my grandson. Wipe that frown off your face," grandfather ordered.
"How can you make light of this situation. We did not know what was wrong with you. We thought we almost lost you," Barbarius said softly.
"I am not going anywhere. The gods have their own destiny for me. I still have more time on this earth to be with my family, to enjoy the last few pleasurable moments that make life worth living."
The nurse reentered the room. I hardly noticed her unassuming presence. "Your majesty if I may inquire, do you remember the fall at all?" she asked.
He hesitated for a moment. "All I remember is that the room had grown dim and suddenly started spinning," he said twirling his thumb in the air. "Then everything went black. I do not remember the fall, or even being carried to the bed."
"That is not surprising you did not remember." I suppose grandfather was the fortunate one. Although his head hit the floor, he still remembered the time when I was still badly injured. Clearly his long-term memory was unharmed. "No doubt you fainted, knocking the air from you," the nurse continued. "I must say that your heart is picking up well although it is a little lower than it should be. I am so glad you are doing better your Majesty," the nurse said with a bow. "Word was sent to the Messenger to fetch the local doctor. He should be arriving any moment. May I be dismissed for now?" Grandfather nodded. The nurse departed, leaving just the four of us within the rectangular enclosure.
Grandfather's eyes gazed at the frescos that graced the walls. "There was so many fond moments in this room, so much joy…and pain," he added. I could imagine him piecing the old memories back together.
He countered our anxious gazes with a gracious smile. "This was the room that you boys…I mean men would come here as young boys when I would come here after a long day at the basilica and you would beg me to take you to there. I would tell you that you were far too young to appreciate it but my time has flown," he said with a hint of nostalgia in his words.
I looked down at my feet. "I wish I could remember those times of innocence."
"Oh I could describe it some more for you if you like," he said.
"But it is not the same as experiencing it, feeling it…living it. I still do not even know my own mother," I said sullenly. "All I have is her journal which is my only link to her," I muttered. I turned my back to leave.
"Where are you going?" Apollus called out.
"I want to find her journal to read," I answered.
Before I could make it to the study, Apollus was already on my heels.
"Wait Troy! I do not think you will find the journal of mother in the study."
I turned to face him. "Why not?"
"Father sealed it in another room. He has hoarded some of the belongings of mother there. He forgot her journal was still in the study until recently." A slave scuttled around our legs to sweep away the dust.
"Then I will try to get the door open," I said making my way through the corridor where the bedrooms branched out from.
"It is not that simple. You need a key because it is locked," Apollus said.
"Do you have the key? After all you are the future king?" I said, crossing my arms against my chest.
"Not even father has granted me the key yet," he said looking away.
"You are lying are you," I said in a cool voice.
"I am not lying, Troy." I stared into his eyes trying to find the truth that I yearned for only to look at blank eyes. I brushed past him as I walked back to the room of grandfather.
"Back so soon," grandfather remarked while looking up to acknowledge my presence.
"Do you have the key grandfather?"
He wrinkled his brows. "What are you talking about?"
"I am talking about the key to the room with the keep sakes of mother. Father has decided to stash all her belongings there."
"Oh yes, that was her old room. When she wanted her alone time, she would shut herself inside, light the candles and write in her journal. When your mother died, he could not bear to throw her belongings away, but decided to store them all there, as if it was his way of holding onto her.
"Why does he not want me to see the journal? Is there something I do not know about?" I said shrugging my shoulders. His face fell.
"I swore I would never bring this up, but what did you see in the journal? I am assuming you have inquired into it, have you?"
"I stumbled upon it," I said in a rueful voice. "I saw the leather cover and was curious so I peered inside. I read the pages of her describing everything from the pregnancy but somehow there are pages missing, and I wondered why she would tear out pages about Barbarius." I watched Barbarius from the corner of my eyes. He watched me with quiet caution.
Grandfather made an attempt to sit up in the cot. "It was done for a reason. To protect you from the truth. A truth I can no longer mask from you."
"What is it?" I muttered.
"I hate for you to find out this way but those were not pages of Barbarius... It was another child," he said. The room went silent. My jaw dropped. I could hardly contain myself before the next words followed. "Barbarius is not the firstborn."
My face twisted. "What?"