Chapter 19: Suspicious Minds
"Father. Mother," Romeos called out. His voice flowed through the partitions of the vestibule that separated the storefront that faced the busy street. Only no patrons entered its doors. I trudged behind Romeos as I took in the colorful frescos that brought fresh life to the airy room.
Julius was the first to greet him with a smile. "Romeos, there you are. I was hoping we could have ridden together…" Julius faltered as I emerged from behind.
"Troy? What a pleasant surprise," he said scratching his head. "So…what brings you here?" he asked.
I turned to Romeos. "Romeos invited me as a guest." Romeos confirmed my words with a toothy grin.
"I thought that you could not… I mean why do you want to stay with us?" Julius asked with raised eyebrows.
"Long story," I mumbled.
"Oh," he said, pursing his lips together. "So," he began, "what happened to your face? It looks like you got into a scuffle." I stroked the tender flesh under my left eye as he spoke, feeling for the swelling he was eyeing.
Romeos let out a sigh. "Not now Julius. I will tell father and mother myself. After all Silus has come over several times without a proper invitation."
Julius sighed before answering in a terse voice. "Well, this is kind of different." Julius waved us in. "Well just go ahead before…"
"Before what?" a man answered. A matured man dressed in a toga came strolling around the impluvium with his wife. His beady eyes gazed at me for a moment before turning to the twins. His mother tossed me a wary glance before resting her big eyes on her husband.
"Never mind," Julius muttered under his breath. For a stretch of time there was an uncomfortable silence.
Romeos stepped forward. "Well, mother, father, I have a guest here that you know well of. I was thinking maybe we could make him feel welcome." His father simply stared at Romeos with a blank expression.
"This is a bit abrupt of you Romeos. I did not expect the son of the king to suddenly show up at our residence," he said in a stern voice. "I suppose we have not prepared any exquisite dinner to welcome our guest. So what brings you here Troy?" the father asked, keeping his eyes trained on me. What should I say? I just need to think of something in the moment that sounds palatable.
"Romeos told me on the ride here that I was welcomed at your residence since the last time I came over.
"Well, it has been awhile," the mother said softly as she gazed into her husband for further approval.
The father nodded. "You have changed Troy but so have many other things. I am sure your family is inquiring about you. Is everything well with you?" he asked.
Where do I even begin with a question like that?
"Why do you have your hands to your face?" his mother blurted in her shrilly voice. I forgot my hand was cupped just below my eye.
"I am well. Nothing but mere bruises."
His father walked closer to me, his eyes unflinching. "Let me see. If it is serious I can have the slaves dress the wound." It was no use hiding it anymore. The mother gasped as my hand retreated from my face.
"Boys will be boys, or should I say men will be men," he said with a smirk. He resembled Romeos when he made that face. "So you got this at the gymnasium or at home?"
"At the gymnasium," I replied matter-of-fact. "It was a vigorous wrestling match," I continued in a steady voice.
He cocked an eyebrow. "Looks like it got quite intense," he remarked. "In any case you are a guest so it would be wrong to turn you away. You can recline at the couch," he said pointing to the couch bordering the glistening pool. "They are simple but hopefully you will find them to be of your liking," he said. I looked down at the wooden legs that held it up before returning their hospitality with a weak smile. The mother turned her head away, before the two walked off towards the right wing of the atrium.
Between their shared murmurs I could hear, "I do not know why he came over," slip through their lips.
I sprung from the couch. "Sorry," I blurted. Both parents turned around.
"I am sorry about everything. Including the blacklist." I could hardly look them in the eye. "I should get going." I quickened my stride across the tiled floor to make my escape. This was all one big mistake.
"Wait, Troy!" Romeos called out. I did not even bother to turn around as I kept marching through the vestibule.
"I am so sorry about how my parents acted. They are usually more understanding."
I stopped right at the door. "I do not blame them for despising me. My father made him lose his livelihood. They can barely look at me, not after what my family did to them. I suppose trouble finds me wherever I run," I said bitterly.
"My parents do not despise you." Romeos placed a hand on my shoulder, his eyes leveled with mines. "Look. I can reason with them," Romeos assured. I was afraid they already made their feelings painfully clear. I opened the door ushering a clap of thunder before the collective sound of raindrops pelting the hard gray earth took precedence. I sighed inward as I realized I was miles from home.
"Do you really want to walk in the rain?" Romeos exclaimed. "Where are you going to go if not home?"
I threw my hands up. "I have nowhere else to go unless I can find a local inn. Maybe the owner will have spare rooms."
"Why stay at an inn when you have friends?" Romeos asked. I stared into the rain, letting the cool mist dampen my face. When I turned around Julius was standing with Romeos.
Julius made an attempt to smile. "You are more than welcomed here," he said. "You have proven to be another brother to Romeos and me. Blacklist or not," he said softly. "Look. It will be a hassle to travel in the storm. Just stay at least for dinner," Julius beseeched.
"Why are you being so nice to me?" I asked.
"Because we are your friends," the twins said almost in unison.
My voice dropped. "I know. But someday that may not be the case. How can I trust that everything will stay the same?" I asked with a sigh.
Romeos shrugged. "I cannot promise that things will stay exactly the same because life throws different obstacles in the road that no one can predict. But I want to promise you that no matter what, I will try to be loyal. And I hope you never stop being the way you are… well at least a little less doom and gloom. We already have enough of that," Romeos said pointing outside. The folds of my lips curled.
"Was that a smile I see?" Romeos asked, smirking.
"I just wanted to see you happy again, even for a brief moment. I know you would want me to be happy." The three of us smiled facing the dark skies that loomed over the city. Just then a bolt of lightning lit the sky in a blinding flash of white. All three of us scurried back inside, laughing away our rattled nerves. I may have only remembered Romeos and Julius for a few months , but I felt like I known them my whole life. Facing us from the couch was their parents. Their stern expressions softened.
He spread out his hands in a sweeping gesture. "You can stay here Troy. At least for the night. Guests are welcomed at our house, and you should feel like one," he said, mustering a weak smile.
"Thank you so much. You really did not have to do this," I said, breaking into a smile. They must have felt sorry for me. But I did not care if they were doing it out of pity. I was just happy to be accepted.
He held out his hand. "But I want to."
After a modest dinner served by their few house cooks, I was given a brief tour of the home.
"This is my room. Julius room is next to mines. As you can see all the doors are open." I peeked into Romeos room as he gestured with his hand. His room was similar to mines; a simple bed, a footstool and a small table for the oil lamp.
"And here is your room," he said finally as he gestured to the room across from his. It was slightly smaller than his room. The only furniture was a stuffed cot.
"How do you like it?" Julius asked.
"It looks nice," I replied.
"I know you are more use to fancier taste, but I hope this will suffice," Romeos said, as he tried to study my reaction.
"No this is sufficient. This is all I need," I said before plopping on the bed. The orange light glowing from their respective oil lamps highlighted their smiles.
"Well, I hope you enjoy your stay at our residence," Julius added.
"It has been nice so far, and thanks for the dinner, the tour, for staying at your guest bedroom, for everything. I feel better already."
Romeos exchanged a grin with Julius. "You are welcome. That is what friends are for," he said.
I nodded as they bid their farewells. It was a long day filled with trouble. I tossed and turned in the thin sheets, hoping to chase away the drama and welcome sleep. After some time my body finally went limp in the dark cool night.
Dawn was breaking forth. I could sense its warmth even through the linen sheets that enveloped me.
"Good morning Troy." I stirred in the sheets, refusing to let go of the bed. Sleep was not always easy to come by. I hated to bid it farewell too soon. The voice interrupting my sleep sounded calm and collected like Julius. Whoever it was I needed more time. I snuggled within the familiar white warm sheets—my bed. Was I still dreaming? I pinched my wrist, hoping to find the sheets a different texture, the room's frescos a different scene.
"Come on, I know you hear me," he said, pulling the cover off my head. He stood there, speechless. I must have looked dazed looking at the blurred greens and blues before the distinct forms became land rising from the sea. This was certainly not my room. Before I could say a word, Julius was already making his way to the door in silence. I decided to ignore his odd behavior and prepare myself to meet the family for the morning meal. Before I could enter the summer triclinium, the smell of fresh bread already flooded my nostrils.
I eagerly took part in the meal, breaking my bread in half for consumption. The father who did not say much glanced in my direction. "So Troy, I hear that you are still studying with Anias."
"You heard correct. Hopefully I can catch up on my studies so I can attend the rhetoric school later this year if not next year," I said, before biting into the crusty shell to reveal a chewy soft core.
"It is too bad Romeos is not attending the rhetoric school…he quit. I am afraid that might be the fate of Julius." I watched as I saw Romeos flatten against the couch.
"So I heard," I said. I took the cup of diluted wine to my lips. "I know he hopes to resume."
Romeos rolled his eyes. "Can we not talk about this?" Romeos muttered. His father flashed him a stern look.
"So… how is your family doing?" his mother asked in a lighter voice.
"They are doing fair," I replied crisply. The parents simply nodded.
The father took another sip of his wine before leveling his eyes with mines. "I am happy you chose our home to stay at. I suppose we are all surprised you decided to pay a visit. I never meant to treat you with contempt. I just did not know if anyone put you up to anything," he said with a chuckle. I suppose I could not blame them for being wary of me. After all, my father did put him on the blacklist. "My main concern was that your father would not approve of you staying," he said growing serious again. I looked into my wine cup. It was empty.
"I hope your father would not be upset at you being here," the mother added.
"It does not matter," I muttered. "The blacklist is of no concern to me. I believe you are a man of good character when you decided to let me stay," I said.
He cleared his throat before mustering a smile. "Thank you Troy. Well it looks like I am about done with my meal," he said as he gestured for the slaves to clear the table. Why did I have to bring up the blacklist? It was ill taste of me to bring it then one of the slaves walked into the room, his hand free of dishes. He leaned in to whisper something in the father's ears. His father quietly rose from the couch and left. His wife followed leaving me with the twins. In the corner of my eye I caught Julius staring at my wrist propped on the table. When he noticed I was looking, he quickly turned his gaze to his dish of bread and porridge.
I decided to break the awkward silence. "You were awfully quiet Julius," I remarked.
Julius shrugged. "I just did not have much to say. I am the quiet twin in case that fact escaped your notice," he replied matter-of-fact. True. Julius was reserved—the very opposite of Romeos— but I would think that being in the company of his brother would allow him be free to let down his guard. As the slave came to gather the dishes, I handed her my dish so she would not have to reach all the way over. Once again I found Julius glancing at my wrist.
"If something was wrong, you would be honest with us would you?" Julius asked in a rueful voice.
I took my hands off the table. They were receiving way too much attention. "I suppose…is this about my wrists?" I asking, trying to mask my growing annoyance.
Romeos crinkled his brows. "What are you talking about?"
Julius turned to Romeos who reclined next to him. "I am talking about the skin around his right wrist, which is red and tender. I was a little concerned that is all."
I heaved a sigh. "There is nothing to be worried about. It was probably from the fight."
Julius nodded as if he already knew my story about the wrestling match was fabricated. His next words confirmed what I suspected. "I heard you fought Silus."
"He was being more spiteful than usual. He had it coming though," I said sharply. "I probably got this during the fight." Just the thought of Silus made my body tense. How they even befriended that monster was a mystery.
"So he pinched your wrist? That is what it looks like," Julius said in a measured tone.
"Maybe…why does it matter it to you? The point is I am well and Silus will finally learn to respect me. What is with the questions this morning?" I muttered.
Julius pursed his lips together. "Never mind. Maybe I am imagining things that do not exist," Julius said before getting up from the couch. "Forget I mentioned it," Julius said shaking his head as he left the room.
"You know you do not have to hide anything from us. We are family, remember," Romeos said gently. They were not going to let it go.
"It is nothing serious. I do not want you to be too worried about me. I will get through this somehow." We both got up from the couch as we pushed past the red curtains that screened our view of the garden. Coming from the opposite side was Julius. When he saw Romeos and me, he heaved a sigh.
Romeos stepped underneath the shade of the portico where Julius stood. "So what was the interruption at breakfast about?"
"The Messenger arrived. Word has it that Maximus evaded questioning and now he is wanted. He wants to know if anyone has seen him in recently."
Romeos shrugged. "Not me," he answered. Before they even realized it, their father had entered the garden.
"I think you young men should come into the atrium this moment. The Messenger and a civil servant of the king wish to speak to you all." We trudged back to the atrium. He stood waiting by the couch, staring at us with his green eyes. His stern veneer gave way to a fleeting smile.
"So the reason we are here," he said casting a steady gaze at Romeos and I, "Is that we are looking for a young man in his early 20s by the name of Maximus Octavius Severus. Are you men familiar with this individual?" We both nodded silently. "Very well, so you know who he is and how he looks. So have any one of you seen him recently?"
Romeos gave his head a shake.
The investigator turned to me. "What about you Troy?"
"By recently do you mean up till yesterday or a week because I have not seen him today or yesterday," I stated. I felt all the pairs of eyes in the room fall on me. This day is off to a bad start.
"I meant yesterday although this could extend to a week or two," he said briskly. "By the way Troy when was the last time you seen him?"
"It was two days ago at the dinner party. I saw him in the hallway with Gaius before they escaped." The investigator nodded before telling me that he would like to continue our discussion in a more private setting.
"I have to get ready for the rhetoric school," Julius mumbled as he headed to the door. Romeos who usually plastered a smile, even when the situation did not call for it was not smiling now. I broke our gaze and followed him into the family study nestled on the other side of the curtains.
He sat down on a small couch against the wall. He gestured to a chair across from it. "Have a seat here." I obliged without a word. "So Troy," he continued, "where do you think he might have went?" There were no pleasantries or even the customary greetings. He wasted no time trying to pry my head for answers.
"I have no knowledge of his whereabouts," I replied simply.
The investigator pressed on, unfazed. "I am sure you have been in his company and perhaps you might know the places he frequents." It dawned on me that the investigator knew I had associated with Maximus although we were never friends. He must have gathered this from father.
I shrugged. "I do not know his taste in enjoyment other than the theater perhaps."
The investigator leaned forward in his seat. "When did you accompany him and who were with you?"
"I had gone with him earlier in the week to see a play with some friends of his."
Up to this point the investigator was pleasantly mild in his approach. But now his voice took a brisk turn. "Who were his friends?" he probed.
"He came with his wife Athena and his friends Caius and Romulus."
He leaned back into his seat, folding his hands onto his lap. "I thought so. I suppose you are more useful than I thought," he said. So the investigator did know who his friends were. How much did he already know?
"What happened to his wife?" I asked sheepishly. From the beginning I would have thought they would have interrogated her and got all the answers they needed. Why come after someone who barely knew Maximus?
His response was, "She is missing too. We have not gotten a hold of her yet at the home." A twisted smile found its way on his lips. "She would have got burned if she stayed at the house anyways," he said. His feign laugh disturbed me. "Meanwhile we are trying to get him in for further questioning, because it has been confirmed to our ears that he and his father plotted to kill the king at the party. Correct so far to your understanding, Troy Acertius?" he asked, staring straight into my eyes.
"Yes," I answered in an affirmative voice.
"Your father has eyes all around the island. I though did not expect you to be here but I suppose these are your 'friends.' Shall I tell your father you are in safe hands?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Even with supposed men on the list of wary men to be watched for, to be feared, to be loathed?" I merely nodded which only seemed to irritate him more. "You seem to like being in companionship with questionable people. Is it that they find you or you find them?"
"I do not know what you want me to say," I said in a terse voice.
"Just tell me the truth. That will suffice."
"I am sorry um…I do not always know," I mumbled.
"Know what? That they are untrustworthy and are on the blacklist?"
"I swear I did not know Maximus was even on the blacklist when I first accompanied him and the others when we went to the theater.
"You did know Diodecios was on the blacklist."
My heart sank. There was no use lying. He would know if I was. "I know but…his sons were not, so I thought I could still talk to them and even then I barely spoke to them in public."
"By extension they also are affected even if their names are not on the list. You are really playing a dangerous game Troy, because you are not to befriend them or otherwise you might be mistaken for a sympathizer. In case you forgot blacklist means you are always a suspect, and suspects cannot be entrusted with responsibilities. That is why this was one of the first homes we came to visit."
This was unfair to the sons. My buckling resolve was renewed with defiance that laced my next words. "I am confident their father is an innocent man. He does not belong on the list. I would think this was some kind of mistake," I said coolly. The investigator leaned forward. His expression darkened.
"So you think you know him. According to the briefings which I cannot share in detail, the expedition he went on over a year ago was nothing more than a pretense. The amount that was supposed to be given to the treasury was smaller than the actual goods they brought back. I do not know where all of the missing things are," he said scouring the room with hungry eyes. "But I do know that you need to get the facts first before you misplace your trust. In any case, your father would want you back in your own home." What home?
I clamped down on my jaw and took a deep breath before collecting my composure. "I understand the complications sir, but I think I will stay here if it is all right with my hosts," I said folding my hands against my lap. I watched as the investigator tried to mask his disappointment.
"I suppose I will have to pass along the news to your father. I just hope you know where your true loyalty lay. I would hate for you to end up on the wrong side or should I say list." I heaved a sigh, realizing he was playing on my fears. Unfortunately it was working.
I imagined he would have relished my silent defeat but his expression softened. "I suppose in this particular situation I could explain that you will be my ears and eyes for me over here so your father does not grow anymore wary. However if you see anything suspicious or you come across the people in question, you need to inform me if you are still loyal to the king; Mediator. Promise me that," he said sternly.
"I promise," I said.
He got up from his seat to shake my hands. For a moment he looked sincere. If he knew so much about my time with Maximus he no doubt knew things about home. Before he left, I blurted out, "Do you know how my grandfather is doing?"
"I cannot say I know. Why not see him for yourself? He needs all the support right now," he said softly. Then the Messenger popped his head through the curtains signaling.
The investigator's face hardened like the stone columns that rose to the ceiling in the atrium. "I suppose we are still at a dead end," the Messenger said. "We need to get access to his friends if not his lover," he snickered.
"I wonder where we can find his chief accomplice?" the investigator muttered under his breath. I pondered the thought but it only led to one other person Athena would go to. Priscilla. That was the only person that I could think of she would turn to besides family. After all they were friends. If the investigator knew that information, he would come after Priscilla and her family for questioning. I hated to see her dragged into the investigation of something that does not concern her. Unfortunately I could not protect her…not even Titus. Reflecting back to when the guard stopped her at our residence, this dilemma would become her problem soon. Just keep quiet Troy I repeated to myself as the investigator and the Messenger made their way to the front door.
Romeos was waiting on the other side of the curtains, waiting for me to step into the atrium. "There you are Troy," he said. A tight smile spread across his face. When I hesitated to respond, Romeos blurted, "How did it go?"
"It was quite intense," I answered.
He exhaled a nervous laugh. "I can imagine. This is not the first time they came for a "visit." I cannot believe what I am hearing from my father's mouth. We have been left in the dark about everything until recently. I never thought Gaius was being charged for attempted murder. My father used to work for him as a merchant." I can believe it. None of this surprised me. I simply nodded, taking cues from his lively facial expressions when to look concerned. "Gaius is a powerful man," he added, "and he used to sponsor trips my father would go on."
He furrowed his brows, shaking his head. "I cannot believe that he would do something so horrible. It is becoming so hard to know what or who is real anymore." A snort clipped his closing words.
"That is my reality," I said softly. "Remember when I asked you if it is wrong to get lost in the dreams? You said 'as long as you can perceive the difference between the two.' "
Romeos pondered my words before nodding. Perhaps he was surprised at the turn of the conversation.
"Well," I began, "sometimes it becomes hard to tell the difference between the two."
Romeos' exaggerated the furrows in his brow. His attempt to look serious appeared more comical. I had to keep from chuckling. "What makes you say that?" he asked. "I will admit that when you are dreaming it feels like the action is really happening but when you wake up you realize it was just a dream."
"Sometimes for me what happens in the dream feels so real that it could happen…and has happened. At times I forget when the dream ends and when reality begins."
Romeos lips ripened into a grin. "You really did get lost in your dreams."
I did not return the smile. "This is serious Romeos," I said. "My dreams are often vivid and sometimes they come true."
"So if I understand correctly you are saying your dreams can predict the future? Like a seer?"
I shrugged. "Not always. But what I am saying to you is that my dreams are trying to tell me something and I feel that they are the key to understanding my present, future, and past."
Now Romeos was not smiling anymore. "So is there any way you can tell the difference between a dream and reality?"
My answer was simple. "Pain. Usually I feel numb in my dreams. It is only when I wake up that I feel something." I lowered my head, ashamed that I revealed something so intimate that not even my family knew. "I suppose I cannot hide it from Julius and I cannot hide it from you anymore."
"Hide what? Your scars?" I looked down at my wrists. There was no use hiding. He already knew about them.
"So is that why you pinched your wrists?" Romeos asked in a low voice. I answered with a stiff nod.
Romeos' face softened, his lively expressions subdued. "But after you inflict yourself this way, you will get use to the pain," he said.
"Then I might have to use other methods to feel a stronger sensation," I answered. I pulled out a small knife from my sheath. Romeos gawked at the knife slanted at an angle to my wrists.
"Are you serious? Do not even think about it—"