Chapter 26: Dare!
"I promise we are going to find him, Romeos. I promise. You have my word on it," I said patting him on the shoulder, as his sweat stained face slowly rose to face mines.
"Thanks, but I do not want you to get in trouble with your father. You have a role in life already cut out for you. I do not want to mess that up. You will have the chance to attend the rhetoric school next year; you will have the chance to be the Mediator; you have it all. You always have except when you almost lost it all earlier this year. But you have the chance to regain it all. You have it figured it out whereas I have nothing to lose. It was wrong for me to assume you could risk your neck on our behalf. Julius is looking into the House of Detention, so hopefully I will hear back from him," Romeos sighed before turning around.
"What if your father is not in the House of Detention; then what?" I inquired.
"Well, maybe I will go to the "hole" or wherever your father is keeping him!" he replied emphatically.
"How would you get in?"
"I do not know, Troy. I did not think that far ahead yet," he said rolling his eyes. "Somehow I have to break in," he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
"You would not really do that, would you?" I inquired sheepishly.
"Maybe; would you if someone you loved was taken from you," he shot back. I stood there speechless; feeling so…helpless. It was the first time since waking up and realizing I could not walk, that I felt so helpless; as if I had lost all mobility. I wanted to play by the rules; but I felt it was a losing game. I was expected to be the "good, obedient son." I was expected to follow the path everyone laid for me. But everything I was fed to believe, seemed to be crumbling down in my mind, as I struggled to find my voice and make my own choices.
"I understand when someone you love is taken from you," I said softly. "If there was anything I could do just to see my grandfather again, I would do just about anything…but he is gone," I said nostalgically. Romeos' face softened as he looked at me with sorry eyes.
"That is why I want to see him. I do not know what will befall him. You either can come along with me to find not just my father but the truth or you can stay here where you have it all figured out," Romeos said shrugging his shoulders.
"To be honest, I am still trying to figure things out. What I have figured out is that my voice does not seem to matter to anyone anyways…at least to my father. 'I have it all' but it means almost nothing to me. What I have come to realize is that there are some things worth fighting for… I am going with you," I answered firmly. Romeos let out a wide grin, as he patted my steed that stood behind us.
"I suppose we need to come up with a plan of some sort to avoid detection. And I believe we can form one together. But first we need the keys. Your father must hold all the keys. All you have to do is find the one we need," Romeos uttered. My heart laid beating inside my chest as I realized the magnitude of this critical task. Weeks ago, I would have flatly refused such a suggestion; considering it too dangerous or even ridiculous. But now the suggestion taunted me in the face. I could not fail him; there was no room for failure!
"Well, are you going to do it or what?" Romeos sighed. I would have said no but something else took over. With my fears aside; the very fears and inhibitions that held me back had slowly melted. I was ready!
I instructed Romeos to hide in the bushes behind the horse stable until I arrived back. Meanwhile I waited for the hallways to clear, as I nonchalantly walked to father's room. It was the last room in the 2nd floor, with a balcony looking down to the indoor garden below. As I reached for the handle…it was locked. Now what? Is it in the study? I had to quickly walk down the stairs until I made my way by the entryway of the study. As I peeked inside, to my surprise, it was empty. I gingerly cracked the door open, as my eyes scoured the shelves for keys. I pushed aside some of the yellowed scrolls that were neatly lined up, as I looked for any keepsake box that father often hid. Still no keys! Frustrated, I ran my hands through my oily hair, as I tried to think where father would keep the keys. As my hands reached for the top shelves, my fingernails slithered across a crack. I thought father had the walls recently plastered? I looked around for an empty wooden crate to step onto as I investigated the crack in the wall behind the top shelf. To my surprise, the crack was a square cut out. I dug my nails into the crack, as I tried to pry the wall open. As I struggled to open it, the small door finally cracked open. Finally I was getting somewhere.
I looked inside the small dark space, which was covered in cobwebs. I let an audible cough, as the dust blew in my face. As I ripped through the tangled webs, I saw a pair of keys dangling on a small metal latch inside the nook. I examined the set of keys before smiling to myself how clever I was to outsmart father. Then footsteps approached!
"Troy, are you inside?" Barbarius strolled in. I quickly slammed the secret door closed. As I stood there facing Barbarius' bedazzled expression, my shaking wrists still held the keys inside.
"I was looking for my one of my lesson books with Anias," I replied calmly, as I tried to brush the dust off my shoulders.
"Why would it be there?" Barbarius questioned, as he rolled his eyes.
"You know the slaves are always rearranging things. I almost lost grandfather's journal recently." Barbarius merely nodded with his lips pursed together. "Now if you excuse me I am going to Marcus' Aurelius house for dinner," I lied.
"Did you clear it with father first," Barbarius shrugged.
"Not yet, but just tell him I am on my way there."
"Whatever," Barbarius grumbled. "I just cannot remember the last time you went over Marcus' home for dinner. Since when did you become friends?" he retorted dryly.
"When father took away all my friends," I hissed.
"Father has his reasons; you know why!"
"Tell me one thing. Where does father keep all those detained for questioning?"
"Troy, it is likely the house of detention. But I doubt your little friends are being held there if you are so worried about checking on them," he retorted brusquely. I gave him one cold glare as I jumped off the crate and brushed past him.
"Oh, Troy," Barbarius called out as I headed out the door. What now?
"Never mind. Just be careful out there. There is a curfew set in place when the moon hits mid-sky," he warned. I watched as Barbarius sighed in defeat as he realized I was just as strong-willed and stubborn as he was. There was no stopping me from this point on, but I would not realize until later that Barbarius knew the streets better than I did.
I had stolen my father's keys, lied to Barbarius, and had ran off with a member of the blacklist. As we rode off on my black horse in the warm evening breeze, I could see the lush landscape change into stone buildings, cast in gray shadows. It was just a dare Romeos had said but it felt like so much more. I would realize that once I accepted this act of defiance I was going against everything I was taught to value. I was rejecting the flawed judicial system, the oppressive laws and rules, my family; and part of myself. As the adrenaline pulsed through my veins, in excitement over not getting caught, I felt another feeling lodged inside. For the first time that I can remember, I felt free…
We had at last arrived at the grand archway that led the way into the cluster of marble and limestone buildings that composed the Forum. It was the heart of the city, as the flow of people; from the highest officials to day laborers would stream in and out to worship at the temple, buy foodstuffs at the stalls or merely to congregate to hear law cases. It was the people that breathed life into the grand, spacy buildings lined with columns. As I looked around anxiously for Julius in the midst of the thinning crowds, I was hoping he had word on where their father was. As Romeos pointed the way to the House of Detention, I could not help notice the thin parchments nailed against the trees that lined the courtyard.
"What do the signs say?" I muttered as I squinted to make out the small Latin letters.
"I hope those are not what I think it is!" Romeos exclaimed under his breath.
"Halt!" I hissed at the horse, as I pulled the reins to a jerky stop.
"I am going to check it out," I said as I began to dismount the horse.
"I should see if I can find Julius, because I do not see him," Romeos said as his eyes scanned around the perimeter of civic buildings. As he sat perched on the horse anxiously, I walked towards one of the planted almond trees; with its branches blowing in the breeze.
"Um Romeos," I stammered. The message in black bold letters was clear. Everyone being rounded for questioning was being summoned together. As I read the names at the bottom; Julius and Romeos were included!
"What is wrong? Are they wanted posters?" Romeos inquired as I scurried back to Romeos, who was still calmly waiting on top of the saddle. I reluctantly nodded my head yes, as I watched Romeos exhale a nervous breath.
"Yes, they are wanted posters. You and your brother Julius were summoned to be questioned."
"This is crazy," Romeos mumbled. "I need to get ahold of Julius now!"
"Too late," called a voice from behind. I turned around to behold Silus standing motionless behind me.
"When did they take him?" I questioned anxiously.
"If I were Romeos, I would get out of here. You do not belong here," he said coolly.
"I will go when I get some answers!" Romeos snapped. I stared at Romeos crossed expression as Silus stood by me calmly yet with a stern gaze.
"Romeos deserves to know the truth. I could have sent you to the hole but I did you a favor, that I do not even think you deserve," I said briskly. "But…if you can help us; just to return the favor," I sighed. Silus bit his lip.
"Alright," he began softly. "As I was entering the Forum, Julius was trying to go inside the side door of the House of Detention, but he got stopped by one of the patrol guards. They escorted him inside but he is still in there…and it has been awhile. That is why I am saying you need to leave here now," Silus said in a calm yet cautious tone.
"I will have to leave outside the forum walls and wait for you there, Troy, but not for long," Romeos said at last staring back at me and Silus before he pulled the reins and away he went.
"So are you going to find Julius inside there?" Silus questioned, as he pointed to the boxlike marble building where a small narrow tower rose from the top of the main three levels. "That is a bit risky even for you, considering he is blacklisted," he remarked.
"I thought you were friends, because a friend would be concerned about the other's well-being," I said briskly.
"We were friends. But…if I want to avoid being blacklisted, I need to watch my loyalties," he replied coolly.
"So that is how you and your father got off the blacklist," I asked crossing my arms against my chest.
"Well yes and the fact that my father was cleared. He never traveled that night when Diodecios went aboard the Corinthia. He was supposed to go but he cancelled. Somehow his name was still attached to the records," Silus sighed. "I am trying to be on the right side for once. I know you and your brothers must still despise me even though I have apologized. I want to make things right. I am sorry for everything," he said as his broad shoulders shrank. My tightened posture slowly softened as I looked at Silus' apologetic expression.
"I forgive you," I said resting my left hand on his shoulder. As his light brown eyes slowly looked up I saw not an enemy, but a human.
"You owe me Silus. All I ask is that you do not tell anyone you ever seen Romeos or that we discussed anything about Julius," I whispered, as guards began to walk towards our direction. Silus weakly nodded, as he fiddled with his hands as the guards eyed us together. With little time to spare, I scampered off to the House of Detention.
It was locked! I fiddled with my keys as I inserted each of the keys into the lock. Just as I was about to insert the last skinny brass key…
"What are you doing, Troy?" Felix Aurelius asked, who stood alongside a patrol guard. Instantly I clutched the keys, as I was cornered to the door.
"The front door is locked and I was hoping to gain entry," I replied matter-of-fact.
"It is locked for a reason. No one is to gain entry at this hour until the morning," Felix replied sternly.
"Perhaps you could tell me who is being detained in the upper quarters, before I leave the Forum."
"Well, I am not certain as to why that would concern you, since Barbarius would be the one to check for that information. After all you are just the Mediator," he said shrugging his shoulder with a fake grin that swept across his angular face.
"He asked me to inquire for him," I lied.
"Very well," he said with a befuddled expression. "If I remember correctly, new detainees include the Augustus' family, although the father has just been transported to another facility and his son, Romeos is still needed for questioning. Have you seen him by any chance?" he asked with raised eyebrows.
"No," I replied calmly with a blank expression.
"I could have sworn I seen he him on horseback as I was leaving the Courthouse," he mumbled. "I think we need to send out more patrol guards to patrol the courtyard square for tonight!" he muttered softly to the patrol guard.
"Thank you for your time," I said flashing a fake smile at the two men.
"You are most welcome. Perhaps we can talk more about some court proceedings later. You have a good night. And stay safe," he said in a quiet yet cautious tone. As I walked away, pretending to be calm and collected, a wave of fear filled my stomach with knots. With each step I took, I walked faster and faster; away from the cautious stares of nobles and guards. As the sun set below the marble skyline, casting an orange glow against the ever-changing evening sky; time had now become the enemy. I had to find Romeos or the mission was over.
As I quickly made my way out the stone archway leading to the Forum I looked around the Forum walls that surrounded the civic buildings. Where was Romeos? I tried to push aside the nagging fear he was caught. Do not think that. We will be fine, I assured myself. As I circled around the walls, I looked around anxiously at the passing horses and their riders; hoping, that just maybe one of them was Romeos. As I waited around the corner outside the Forum gates, I saw the horse from the distance. It was Romeos.
"Troy, there you are!" Romeos called out aloud, as his horse neared the corner where I stood. He skillfully slowed the horse to a stop, as I sighed in relief.
"I was looking for you," I said relinquishing a weak smile.
"So, is my father inside the House of Detention?"
"I am afraid they transported him somewhere else," I uttered regretfully.
"You know what this means…" Romeos voice slowly trailed off. I looked at Romeos frozen face.
"This means that he is in the hole?" Romeos refused to answer. As I slowly turned around in that crowded streetscape, I found myself a few paces away from Felix's son Lucius and his brother Marcus, who had by now abruptly ended their conversation.
"Troy, were you supposed to be staying at our house for dinner, because we got word from your brother you were to be arriving," Lucius said with an uneasy grin.
"What is Romeos doing here?" Marcus exclaimed aloud. Romeos began to pull the reins, as he was about to take off.
"Um, I have to go, I am sorry," I muttered as I scampered away.
"Do not leave me!" I hissed at Romeos, as the horse began to pick up the pace.
"We have to get out here!" Romeos said in hushed tones.
"Lift me up!" I said swiftly as I stepped on the stirrup that hung onto to the side of the horse. Romeos extended his hand to grab my left hand as I gripped onto the saddle with my right hand and pulled my left leg over the other side of the saddle. Before I was fully seated, Romeos yanked the reins, almost causing me to lose my balance. My life nearly flashed before my eyes, as I clutched on tight against the horse, as the horse lifted midway in the air.
"Hold on, Troy!" Romeos yelled.
"I am trying," I moaned, as I latched on to the sleeves of his tunic. As we weaved through the lingering crowd crossing the narrow passages, I could hear the guard waving his staff at us.
"Stop this instant!" he yelled out angrily; his nostrils flared in rage. As I looked back, there he was coming after us; full speed!
"Can this thing go faster?" I shouted as I put on a cloak that rested on the saddle.
"I am trying not to crash into people, you know," he hissed. "Just put on the cloak I found, and just hold on." I watched guiltily as people lingering on the street scrambled fearfully to the far sides of the road.
"Where are we going?" I shouted with my hands in the air.
"Somewhere they cannot find us. They are not taking me alive!" As the guard's horse edged closer, I heard the sound of a swish. The arrow cut through the air like a knife as it whizzed past the top of my head and hit a torch post. That was close. Too close! I could not make out the mutterings and curses of the guard as he realized the arrow did not make contact. As we refused to listen to the orders to stop, he continued relentlessly to speed up until his horse almost matched ours.
"Hurry!" I yelled. Releasing one hand from the reins, the patrol guard tried to grab Romeos dangling legs. His swinging arms finally caught hold of Romeos leg!
"You are not going anywhere past me," he snarled as his hairy arms tried to yank him from his seated position.
"Let go of me!" Romeos hissed as he tried to kick his arm away. I shielded my face from the guard with the hood of the cloak as I held on to the second set of reins. Just ahead lay an old man lugging a wheelbarrow in the middle of the road; completely unaware of the danger that lurked.
"Get out the way!" I shouted. Startled the old man looked up in horror as he weakly tried to push the heavy wheelbarrow. Desperately, Romeos swung his fist into the man's arm; but he refused to let go. I shuddered as I tried to take control of the steering, as the guard leaned in to swing his staff at our horse. Whack! The staff came swinging at my ankle. In the heat of the moment, I kicked the guard near his upper bicep, causing him to drop his staff.
"Now you scoundrels are going to pay!" he hissed as he temporarily softened his grip on Romeos leg.
"The wheelbarrow!" Romeos shouted. In a last attempt, I motioned the horse to leap over the wheelbarrow. The patrol guard lost his grip of Romeos leg as the legs of his horse got tangled against the wooden vessel; smashing right into it with full force. As my horse landed back on the hard stone road, I sat shaking, thinking we were so close to losing it all. I looked back, as I shuddered at how close we were to trampling the old man. As our horse sped away in the distance, I watched as the guard slowly peeled himself off the ground as his horse lay sprawled against the hard pavement. As several townsfolk came to their aid, I could hear Romeos breathe a sigh of relief as we had gotten away.
"That was crazy, Troy! I mean…woe. We got away! I still cannot believe it," Romeos exclaimed excitedly.
"We almost got killed!" I said raising my voice. "I did not imagine we would go this far," I said shaking my head profusely. "We are going to get caught!"
"He did not see your face. He saw mines. I gave you the cloak because I want my best friend to be able to make it on the other side," he said softly. For a minute I did not know what to say, as Romeos gave away his only cloak, to protect my identity, when he was the fugitive. I did not know how I would ever repay him for his self-sacrificing love.
"Thank you. You did not have to do that," I said softly.
"I know," he said wistfully. "I wanted to…" The once tightly packed tenements and shops that lined that very road, abruptly ended as the road extended outside the city's limit and into grassy pastures of the countryside. Finally we were safe…for now!
As we left the confines of the city, a feeling of tranquility eased our tense minds, as Romeos slowed the horse to a gentle ride. I watched as we climbed higher up the hill that overlooked the town and the foamy sea to the west of us. The rest of the trip up the hill was rather silent. As we neared the very top; the truth that Romeos wanted us to see rested beneath the valley below. My horse came to a stop, as I gazed down below at the chopped stumps of trees that dotted the valley in contrast to the lush vegetation of the hillside.
"I believe this is the 'valley," Romeos said mysteriously. As we stood at the very edge, I saw the hazy smoke that rose from the valley. A whiff of burning debris hung in the still air, as we circled around the flattened edge of the hill.
"So, this is where the waste goes," I said nostalgically.
"This would be the place where all the garbage is to be disposed. I would think this is the last place anyone would look for me," Romeos sighed.
"Is there a way we can get down there?" I inquired. Romeos turned around to stare at me with a confused expression.
"They say the smoke can be kind of overwhelming, if you get too close," he warned.
"I want to know what keeps it burning, unless you are too afraid," I said tauntingly. I watched as a mischievous smile escaped Romeos lips.
"I suppose we are about to find out, my friend!"-
The side of the valley steeply sloped down to the very bottom. Fearing it was too dangerous to ride down the hill, we tied the horse to one of the few standing trees up the hill. We had slowly descended down to the trough of the valley, where few souls had ventured. As we got closer, the putrid smell of garbage grew stronger, and the visibility grew dimmer as the air grew hazy with smoke. There stretched at our feet was old furniture, twisted rubble of stones and plywood, and garbage of all sorts. In the hazy cloud that encircled us, I saw a glimmer of shiny metal sticking out the rubble.
"What is that?" I said, before coughing into my sleeve.
"It could be a sword of some sort," Romeos shrugged. Curiosity won over my initial fear of stepping foot into the unknown as I gingerly placed my foot against the rubble. Romeos trailed behind me as he jumped from stone to stone. Before I could reach it….ouch!
"Oww!" I hissed. I looked down at my foot to see what scraped against my ankle. This was no ordinary garbage.
"You have to see this Romeos," I said softly.
"What, the sword?" Romeos remarked calmly as he tried to grab the sword which was wedged between two boulders.
"Something worse," I said, as I tried to mask my trembling tone. As Romeos reluctantly let go of the sword he looked down at the discovery. Bones lay scattered everywhere amongst the filth.
"Woe, um…are you sure these are not just animal bones," he said as he unearthed more rib bones. Maybe I was overreacting. As I took another step I almost tripped on a round stone. As I scrambled to gain my balance, I looked to behold a blackened human skull, with a long crack that slithered across the temple of the head. I jumped back, causing Romeos to stir from his crouching position.
"What happened? What did you find now?" Romeos asked with an anxious expression.
"I saw a skull; a human one. Is this what you wanted me to see!" I exclaimed.
"I am afraid there are more of these remains scattered around here. Rumors have it that those who are unworthy of a burial end up here. It is not just trash they keep here," he said in hushed tones. "My father would say, 'No one wants to see trash except the criminals whose ends lay here.' Maybe we are closer to the hole than we think," Romeos uttered. Snap. Crackle! We both crouched low in fear as we watched a man unloading a large wheelbarrow of someone's belongings into the burning orange embers that glowed in the hazy evening. Bottles of expensive oils and bags of coins were stashed away in the old man's sash as the rest of the keepsakes were thrown in the glowing inferno some 50 paces away from where we hid. Years old family relics; burned! Historical scrolls and precious art