Chapter 18: Bitterest Truth
I leaned back against the wall, facing his cot. The doctor abruptly walked in, his face calm and composed. A wax tablet lay secured in his hands.
He whipped out his tablet and stylus, before he proceeded to ask, "Did you drink any of the wine from the dinner party? It seems that your symptoms are similar to the cupbearer but only that your symptoms took longer to manifest itself." Apollus and I gazed at grandfather for an answer. His lips quivered.
He cleared his throat. "I raised the cup to my lips, but I only took a small sip at the most. I must have licked the brim of the cup. The only symptom I recall is a bad stomach ache that night followed by weariness come morning. But I am still in good spirits," he assured, lifting his hands from the sheets. "Really I am doing fair as you can see. Now is not the best time for further examination," he said sternly.
The physician looked up from his notes. "Very well, I will leave you with your family for now." He carried his tablet and stylus and left. Just as the doctor was leaving, Barbarius came inside, casting him an icy glare.
"Well that was a very awkward moment," Apollus blurted. "Can we just pretend that we did not have this conversation? Besides we should be interested in your well-being," he said. While he rested a hand on Grandfather's shoulder, I rolled my eyes.
"You deserve to know the truth," grandfather murmured under his breath. My eye roll did not escape his notice. "I do not know what the future holds, but I do not want to die with a heavy heart. I know I should have told you earlier Troy, and I can see the hurt in your eyes. But," he sighed. "It was always bad timing of things," grandfather said.
"Yes this is very convenient timing!" I said briskly. "Her journal makes perfect sense now."
Apollus crinkled his brows. "What are you talking about?"
"The instance when she first writes about her pregnancy with her firstborn, then there are missing pages, and a new entry talking about her firstborn dated a year later."
"Oh, yes that," Apollus said as his hands fiddled with the folds of his toga.
My eyes narrowed in Apollus' direction. "Wait, you knew too!" I asked.
Apollus looked away. "Yes. I knew about it. Father made me swear I tell nobody else."
I shook my head. "I suppose everyone else knew before me, eh?" I sighed looking at the floor. "So what happened to this firstborn? It died?" I switched my gaze from Apollus to grandfather.
He faltered before answering, "You could say that." He had that pained look on his face, the same one when I failed to recognize him. "I did not want to remember such painful memories. We tried to suppress those events almost twenty-two years ago but now you deserve the truth…the whole truth." He motioned me to stand closer by his bedside.
He cleared his throat before recounting the memory. "When your mother first received the news she was pregnant she was excited and anxious all at the same time. Your father was ecstatic with the news and as the pregnancy carried on; your father announced to his council friends that his wife was carrying their "heir." Weeks before she was expected to give birth, your mother was experiencing complications and soon started feeling birth pangs. When it came time for delivery it was revealed that the baby was not a boy as everyone has hoped but a girl. She was born early. She was so small," he said, cupping his hands together, "that she could still fit nicely in the open palm of your father.
"Your father was greatly displeased, and thought it was best if the baby was put out its misery. So…the midwife carried the baby in a burlap sack to the physician. The physician wrapped up the burlap sack until the baby stopped whimpering. We all held our breath in this very room where it took place. The child was disposed in one of the waste receptacles inside the burlap sack. All the waste was to be shipped to the Valley where waste and undesirable things are dumped." His words paralyzed me. As he told the story I imagined the scene of the baby being strangled. Its little body taking its final breaths before it went limp.
Shock turned to horror. I gripped the bedpost to steady myself. Breathily, I muttered, "You killed her." I steadied my breathing before I continued, "So that is why everyone tried to hide what was going on. They could not wait if she could make it through one night? I suppose the real reason was because she was a girl and father promised a boy!" I said with an edge in my voice. I took three steps back.
"So what did you tell everyone? She had a miscarriage!" I spat.
"Well the baby was lost. That is what we said," grandfather said a measured tone.
"You mean killed!" I said catching my tempo rising.
Apollus glared at me. "Troy, you need to calm down. You should not be yelling at grandfather, after all he went through today," he scolded.
"I do not care!" I yelled.
Grandfather, whose demeanor was weakened, suddenly hardened. "I know it was a horrible decision, but your father knew the political complications that would mount on him and the inquiry from the public. Sometimes you have to make difficult and ugly choices. I did not make that choice that day. Remember that!" Grandfather said exasperatedly.
Apollus moved in closer to the cot. "He has a reputation to protect. We all do," Apollus chided.
"That is all he cares about," I said sharply.
"Enough, Troy! I know you are upset, but your father was trying to protect you. Even if it ended up doing more harm than good," grandfather said. He extended a hand out in my direction only for his hand to clutch the empty space between us.
I shook my head. "Protect me from what? The truth? The truth that my father is a murderer and that he used the physician as an accomplice in carrying it out," I snapped. "He always claims to protect me from a killer, when he is a one."
Apollus marched up to me, scowling. "You should not speak of father like that. You are wrong. And the way you are reacting is the reason why father did not tell you. You are overreacting about what happened in the past! It happened. Let it go!" he mouthed.
"Get out of my face. I do not want to hear it. I cannot believe you are condoning his actions!" I retorted.
His eyes locked on mines. "What I cannot believe is how you are acting. You say you want the 'truth,' but you cannot even handle it!" His hot breath only added to the heat building in my cheeks.
"How would you feel if everything you woke up to believe was true was all a lie? What is my reality? I cannot say anymore. The truth is I finally thought you were done pretending and became a real brother to me. I suppose I was wrong," I said coldly. Apollus just stood in silence. For a moment he had nothing clever or cynical to say. Just a scowl to match my icy glare. I looked over at Barbarius who had remained silent throughout the argument. From his corner he watched us locked in the heat of anger.
"So is this is what we are reduced to?" he asked in a rather calm yet sullen tone. He kneeled to hug grandfather, something I rarely seen him do. "I know you meant no harm," he whispered softly to grandfather as he lay in his bed with tears misting in his eyes.
"I knew about it too Troy. But it was one of those things that once was opened would be like opening old wounds that never really healed. I know how it feels to have your trust betrayed. And I know why you are mad," Barbarius said in a soft yet firm tone. "So as a family we made the decision to suppress the ugly…pain…dysfunction," he said, as if he tasted each of the words and the bitterness it contained.
I shook my head. "That is the problem with this family." I said. "We do not talk about anything until it is too late, until the wounds keep festering underneath…until now," I sighed. "I just do not know anymore. I do not even know my own family," I said bitterly.
"I am so sorry for agreeing to it all. I wish I could take it all back. All of it," grandfather said. He lifted his head to stare at me with his glossy eyes. But I could hardly bear to look at him or any of them. I stormed out the room and into the hallway. Halfway down the hallway, I passed the doctor followed by father. He smiled at me. All I could muster in return was an icy glare. Murderer. Both were in a rush to get to the room where grandfather lay, while I headed in a different direction; somewhere away from home.
Where would I go? Priscilla had rejected me. Romeos and Julius—well they were on the blacklist—but then did it really matter anymore? Where did they live? I could not recall at all. Maybe I would encounter them at the baths. After all everyone needed to bathe. I had to leave soon because people would be retiring to their homes. I asked one of the slaves to hitch a chariot to Midnight because I needed to leave at once to catch them.
After we had traveled a distance to the city district of Apathia where the baths were, I told the driver he could have the few gold coins I had left over from my weekly allowance. He gleamed as he clutched the gold acro coins that glistened in the sunlight. I thanked him for his service and walked into the baths. I needed to channel my tense feelings through some sort of exercise. Every time I lifted the barbell I felt my hand quiver as I lifted it above my shoulder. In the corner of my eye Silus was coming in my direction. He seemed to be focused on the last hand weight on the bench.
Where was Romeos and Julius? Curious I put the heavy weight down and slowly approached Silus who was staring at the selection of equipment on the bench.
"Silus." His eyes snapped up at the mention of his name. "I was hoping the twins would be with you," I said, realizing the twins were not accompanying him.
He gave me a quizzical look. "I am surprised you chose to speak to me," he responded.
I ignored his response. "So I was wondering where Romeos and Julius are? Are they here?"
He shrugged his shoulders. His indifference concerned me. He answered, "They are still on the blacklist."
I raised a brow. "Are you not on the blacklist as well as your father?"
"No, the charges have been dropped against him," he said sternly. "Although I am sure you would want me to be on it," he said sharply.
"Never mind that. Where are they?" I said shaking my head while still trying to process the news.
"Why do you care where they are? Do not tell me you came all the way here just to ask where they are."
"They are still my friends, just like they are friends with you," I replied. "I wanted to know where they stay but I suppose I am just wasting my time with you," I said, giving him a crossed look.
"I would have told you where they stay but since you want to be rude, I refuse," he said before he draped a towel around his damp body. He was the last person to be calling anyone rude!
"You have always been rude to me, and the saddest part is I do not know why. Are you jealous of my position or what?" I questioned.
"Maybe I would like to rise in the ranks of power," he said tossing his eyes at the heavens above our heads in the open palaestra. He trained his eyes back on me, "Although I would not want to be you. You are the weakest link in your family. Barbarius is out of favor so maybe I would choose to be Apollus," he said. A derisive laugh spilled from his lips. My jaw hardened. It was bad enough I was feeling betrayed by my family. Now this ill-talking boy mocked my biggest insecurities. I disliked him before. Now I hated him.
"Now is not the time to mess with me," I warned. "I already have too many things on my mind and I do not need this."
Silus shrugged his shoulders. "Very well. I will leave you alone. I suppose you are still grieving over your moth-"
Before he could even finish his sentence, I pushed him against a stone pillar. "Do not even go there!"
"Oh sorry. I am not trying to take a low blow."
"Just stop. Please stop!" I shouted. My hands balled into fists.
His initial shock quickly changed to agitation. "Back off Troy!" Beads of saliva flew with his words.
I stepped even closer, my face heating with fresh anger. "No until you take back everything you have ever said including that I am weak."
He gave me an incredulous look. "I am not bowing to you! You are not king," he scoffed. He placed a hand on my chest, to push me off him but that was all I needed. I clobbered him in the face, knocking his head against the pillar. He clutched his head, wincing.
My eyes locked on him as his fingers searched for any sign of swelling. "You want to see weak!" I snapped. He looked at me with anger and confusion in his eyes. For a moment I was stunned at what I just done. I was not sure what I was doing. All I knew was that I wanted to knock him down! Before I could raise my fist, he already replied with a fist to my jaw, almost knocking the wind from me. I stumbled back before another blow barreled into my chest. In a burst of vigor I did not know I had, I lunged head on, raining punches indiscriminately.
"You want to see weak!" I taunted between haggard breaths. My head was in a raging blur. I gulped for air before his fists made impact. His next fist landed squarely in my eye. Blindly, I tackled him to the ground, slamming his head against the ground. We wrestled on the grass, taking turns clobbering each other. I clamored on top, pinning his neck with my elbow.
"Stop!" Even in the blind chaos, I recognized the familiar voice.
He jumped in to pull me off Silus. I kicked him in the ribs before he could get up. He sprung up to strike only to hit Romeos in the chest instead.
"You missed!" Romeos snapped. "Enough. Both of you," Romeos ordered. "This boxing, wrestling match or whatever you want to call it has gone too far," he said. He looked in the same direction as I was looking. Blood oozed generously from Silus' nose. I should be happy I made the idiot bleed but I was too angry to rejoice. Romeos focused his attention on Silus who was clutching his nose. "Silus you need to leave." With blood on his hands, Silus lunged out to attack again. Romeos pushed Silus back who still wore a dazed look on his face.
With Romeos still standing between the two of us, I taunted, "You cannot hurt me anymore. I proved it to you on the field. Just like you always wanted! Unfortunately for you I can say you tried to assault a member of the royal family." I looked up and saw what Romeos must have been aware of. A crowd of men hovered around us, gawking. I looked down at my garment, only to have Silus' blood decorate my tunic.
"You do not have to stand between us Romeos. This is not even worth it anymore," Silus mumbled as he cupped his hands over the red stream flowing from his nose.
Romeos looked down at my blood-stained tunic. "How did this start, Troy?" he muttered. He whisked me away from the nosy stragglers before continuing in a hushed voice, "This is not like you."
I sighed. "I lost it," I answered. "Silus kept provoking me and then he made a comment about how I must be still grieving my mother and I lost control and hit him, which started the whole fight. I wanted him to feel how I felt. I am sick and tired of him walking around thinking I am some weakling that cannot fend for himself," I snapped. Romeos nodded his head in silence as if to process what had happened.
"I am sorry about what he said." His face dropped. "I probably should be going. All eyes are on me now," he said, walking away.
"Wait!" I called walking after him. He stopped to stare. "I am sorry I hit your friend Silus. I know this only makes things even more awkward between us."
"No…he had it coming," he admitted softly while casting his eyes to his sandals. "But I suppose I have to leave. I do not belong here anymore, let alone talk to you."
"Who cares about the blacklist?"
He shook his head. "Everyone does Troy."
"Not me," I answered. "Look you are still my friend no matter what, remember? I am not going to let a silly piece of paper dictate who I can speak to. But if I do not have your support I have nobody to turn to," I said bitterly. "Maybe this was a mistake coming here thinking I can run to someone else only for them to disappoint me," I muttered.
"What about your family?" Romeos asked.
"I thought I could turn to them, but I do not know anymore. I do not even know if I could even forgive my father."
"What are you talking about?" Romeos inquired.
"Never mind. It is better if I just keep my mouth shut. That is what everyone does. All I am going to say now is he not this wholesome ruler people look up to."
"Everyone makes mistakes Troy. Whatever he did, he probably did not mean it."
"You have no idea," I muttered under my breath.
Romeos threw his hands up. "Well make me understand then!"
"It is not an accident when you kill someone!" I blurted. I watched Romeos freeze in shock.
"You mean he killed someone? Like a criminal?"
"Not even close," I said softly.
Romeos lips quivered as he faltered for an answer. "Someone closer then." Romeos said it so low it was barely a whisper in the still air. "Um…maybe I do not want to know the answer. I suppose all these feelings inside just kind of exploded because I have never seen you so enraged before. When I saw you fighting Silus I almost could not recognize you for a moment there," he said, forcing a dry laugh. "You were quite fierce. I can tell something was seriously wrong even the way you looked at me after the fight was over."
"How did I look; angry?"
"Something seemed disconnected. Cold. I know you are mad about whatever happened. And if you do not wish to share anymore I accept that too. I am just sorry about what ever transpired," he said in a rueful voice; so different from his light-hearted tone.
"You do not have to apologize. It is not your fault," I said looking him in the eye.
"I know…thanks. Even after all these weeks of silence you continue to speak to me even when my fellow classmates at the rhetoric school shunned me." His face suddenly brightened. "That is why I quit," he said with a half-smile.
My mouth dropped. "That was your dream," I exclaimed. "You cannot throw that away just because of some people!"
"Maybe my dreams changed. I wanted to make you proud. To know that I could carry the dream everyone wanted: my father, my mother, my tutor, and you. Maybe I will go back later. Not now," he said wistfully.
"I promise I will do whatever it takes to clear the name of your father just so Diodecios can get his good name back."
"And how will you do that?" Romeos asked. I looked at Romeos timeless expression, the same expression that forever endeared me to him. The old Romeos was back.
"I do not know but I will think of something."
"Seriously Troy, as much as I want to see things changed, I do not know how you can fix it," he said growing serious again.
"Do not forget I was the one that helped with the investigation and got Gaius put away. I…I mean we can get to the bottom of this. You and me together." Romeos looked up at me with a look of yearning in his eyes. I watched as a weak smile took hold.
"I want to believe you can fix it. I really do," he said softly.
I smirked. "Anything is possible; unless we tell ourselves long enough that our bodies believe the mind."
"You thief! You stole that expression from me," Romeos said, chuckling. "I suppose I need to apply that to myself, eh," he said with a sigh. "You know what Troy? After I pushed you into that pool last spring and you did not retaliate, I knew we would be good friends." I forgot that ever happened. He should have kept quiet about his indiscretion. "But now I know you really are a true friend," he continued…"well besides Julius of course," he said patting me on the shoulder. "If you are willing to risk your neck for me, I do not know what else to say to stop you. If you want you can spend the night with our family. If you want you can stay at our guest bedroom. I know you are still reeling from the family drama and everything," he said sheepishly.
I smiled. "Yes, that would be nice. I just wonder if your parents would mind though with me being the guest. After all what my family did to your family."
"They should understand. My parents are very understanding people. After all you did not write the list."
"Very well," I nodded.
"I will be heading to the steam room, but whenever you are done meet me at the side exit that leads to the Via Appia road if you still want to come. That is where my chariot will pick me up. Otherwise you can meet me at my house. It is located past the merchant quarters on Octavius road near the city gates. My residence is the white-washed building with the storefront with the red tiled roof. You noted all that?"
I nodded. Then in the background a medium-built servant with a stern face tapped Romeos on the shoulder as other men stopped to stare at us in the corridor.
"I have to go now. Take care, Troy. I will see you later on the other side of this establishment. No matter what, there is always somebody you can trust in the world. Always."