Chapter 28: Point of No Return
As the blindfolds were roughly loosened by a guard, I opened my eyes only to find myself at the table in a dim empty room lit with a single candle that glowed in the dark. The guard, who led me to my seat, yanked my head back, almost snapping my neck. I looked up to see the sharp shears in his hand as plowed through my curly hair. As clumps of hair fluttered to the ground and on my lap, I held my breath waiting for the worst. As he released his grip on my scalp, I felt the tiny bristles of hair that still remained on my scalp.
"What do you have to say for yourself, prince? Did you really think you could fool anyone for long? Eh?" The glaring beady eyes of the other guard now lay fixed on my every movement and every word, as he virtually breathed down my neck, while I sat quietly on a stool. It was the one opportunity I had to justify myself, to prove I was in the right. Yet, how could I prove my innocence? How could I take back everything I meant and the new being I was becoming. Silence. I could hear his deep chest breaths he inhaled and exhaled, as his anger churned inside. Suddenly, he clutched the back of my neck with his monstrous hands, as if to suck the life out of me. As I tried to resist, his grasp grew tighter.
"Answer me. You ungrateful_"
"Please…I cannot ta..." I muttered as I struggled for breath.
"Let him go," called a voice from the doorway. "We have yet to hear from the King or the Chief Executor, as to what to do with him…" The rest of the words seemed to be a mumbled blur as the room seemed to be spinning as I finally blacked out…
As I slowly opened my eyes, all I could behold was the darkness that enveloped me. As I lay sprawled on the itchy straw mattress, which replaced my lavish bed waiting at home for me, I felt the bothersome tingly sensation of bugs that drove me to scratch my arms and legs profusely. I checked my mattress for any fleas, although I could not spot any. As I got up from the mattress, I almost stepped on a fat rat that scurried past my feet to its hole in the wall. That was close! I had to get out of here! My mind began to race inside. How did I end up in the cell? Where were the other prisoners? Where was Romeos? I sighed to myself before looking up. Was it morning yet? I barely could tell the time of day anymore as I looked longingly for windows; anything that sunlight could penetrate through.
Beyond my discomfort and confusion, I could not stop thinking about Romeos. He was separated from me as the guards had grabbed hold of us. I recalled the fresh memory of his fight for freedom, as he struggled with the two guards who tried to restrain him from running away. I helplessly gave in, as I realized I could not keep fighting fate. Besides grandfather Miletus, he was the one true friend that stood by my side through better or worse. He was one of the voices that told me to continue to persevere no matter what life may throw at you. He enjoyed every moment of life and did not always take himself so seriously, like many of our peers who tried so hard to play a part. I finally learned what it meant to just live in the moment and not be so afraid. Just when I felt my life was beginning, I felt all the walls were closing in again. I could not stop wondering what lay next or if I would see the light of day anymore. Our excursion to defy everything just to right the wrongs had cost us dearly.
Just then, I heard footsteps from the hall. Through the metal bars, I saw a burly man with a tray in hand. Without a word, he slid the tray of food inside my cell. I starred at the dry hard bread and slops of lukewarm porridge comprised of oats.
"Is that all for breakfast?" I asked sheepishly.
"Yes and you better be grateful you even got food!" the guard hissed.
"I am grateful. I would be even more grateful if you could inform me where is Romeos?" I asked sharply.
"He is in another solitary cell where he belongs."
"How long do you expect me to stay here?" I asked.
"You are here until we decide or someone else decides you can leave. You make note of that!"
"I know what I did was wrong but I still deserve to know what is to happen to me or anyone else if I choose to," I said. The guard angrily rattled the door open and stepped inside, so that he stood a few inches from my face.
"You lost your rights, "prince," when you decided to trespass without legal authorization, impersonate a guard and attempt to free a prisoner. You think you get special rights just because your father rules the island. Well since you love exploring the hole, why not stay here," he hissed. "Now shut that hole in your head or I will beat a hole into you!" he snapped. As he turned around to leave my cell, the guard kicked my tray of food against the wall, smearing the porridge all over the walls. There went part of my breakfast!
Reluctantly, I picked up the bread on the ground to eat, while sitting on the hard cold concrete. I realized in that moment how much I really took for granted the warm lavish meals at home, as I sat alone in solitary confinement. No matter how much I pinched myself, no matter how much I banged against the cold walls, I could not wake up from this nightmare. I had to keep my sanity or I would go mad.
I kept track of the days with tick marks on the wall, with a stone I had found in the cell. It had been three days since I was held captive. Like usual, I waited patiently for my breakfast, which I had grown accustomed to. Footsteps grew closer and closer to my cell. As I looked through the bars, there was no tray in his hands. I waited anxiously as he pulled out the keys and abruptly swung my cell door wide open. What was going on? I huddled off to the corner, as I looked up to the tall man that hovered over me. Please do not hurt me.
"You are coming home, Troy," he said softly. What? I shook my head thinking I must be still dreaming.
"I…I am," I stammered.
"You were cleared. Your friend confessed that the whole scheme was his idea and that you simply went along with it. You are still in questioning but for now you are to be released, until your father decides what he wants to do to you. You are fortunate. Many do not leave this chamber. Think of it as another chance," he said stiffly.
"Thanks. Do you know who released me?"
"Your brother, Barbarius," he responded.
I was in the mercy of Barbarius, who decided my fate that August morning. As I was escorted out the prison fortress, which rested on the cliff above the sea, and onto the chariot, I looked back at the hole. For the first time, I could hear the birds and their beautiful songs above in the treetops. The fresh dew of the juniper trees and the scent of wildflowers pricked my awakening senses. Finally I could see the light of day. Within my ecstasy, I kept thinking about the friend I left behind. I should be overjoyed; I was happy. After all, Barbarius had shown mercy to me and helped with my release. I was happy I got a second chance but it pained me inside that I would never ever see Romeos again. All the anxiety of what would befall Romeos and how I would face everyone again, welled up inside.
Finally the chariot came to a stop in front of my home. What felt like an eternity, had finally arrived. I told the guard he need not escort me, as I entered through the front door, through the vestibule and into the atrium.
"Where is everyone?" I muttered softly to myself. I slowly took in the fragrance and the sight of the lighted airy interior, as I gazed around as if it had been eternity since I last made it home. As I strolled to my room, I saw Odydus talking to Cornelia outside my room.
"Hello," I muttered awkwardly. Odydus cast a troubled expression before meekly acknowledging my presence. Cornelia stood by his side, as she too noted the awkwardness of the scene.
"Welcome back, Troy," he said casting an uneasy grin. "Your brothers should be coming back from the tribunal shortly. Whatever happens, I hope you learn from this and grow," he sighed. Odydus patted me on the shoulder, as he continued walking down the long passageway. I watched Cornelia, as she fiddled with her tunica.
"My goodness, Troy! What happened to you? I heard that you were being detained in the hole and I got scared and confused because you do not belong there. That is where criminals go; you are a good person. There must be some mistake. I was so worried that you would not come back," she said in what seemed all one long breath, before she bowed her head.
"I am here now. I am not going back, Cornelia," I said calmly as I pushed her long damp hair away from her tear-stained face. She instantly fell into my arms as I held her tightly in my arms; not wanting to let go.
"Why did they send you there? I just do not understand," she said shaking her head, as her bun swayed from side to side.
"Let me just say I did something I should not have done, that I cannot take back. At the time I thought it was the right thing to do even though it cost me my freedom. If I told you that I was not the same boy anymore, would you think differently of me. If I told you I broke in the hole to free someone, would you still love me?" I watched as she slowly pulled herself from our embrace as she took a step back.
"I never expected that from you," she said at last.
"I know. And you probably think I have gone mad or am stupid for risking my life, but I only did what I did because I believed the person that was in that torture chamber was an innocent man and his son wanted nothing more than to see his father. It was not the best plan, but I could not live with myself knowing I stood passively without at least trying to do something." Cornelia pursed her lips as she tried to compose herself again.
"That was so risky. Even suicidal," she said softly.
"I suppose you could say that," I said in an undertone. "Go ahead, you can judge me like everyone else."
"I am not the one to judge you, Troy. It took bravery to stand up for what you believe; I know it was not easy. I meant what I said that we need more people like you in this world."
"Thanks, you seem to be the only one that thinks that way. You are the only one that understands me and all I did was take you for granted. Priscilla is over me; she did not write back after I sent the letter. She is engaged and I have to let her go. You wanted me and I was too blind to see you as a person. Maybe I wanted us to be friends because it felt safe." I watched Cornelia stand there quietly as her golden eyes moistened with tears.
"Troy, you are an amazing person. You have a purpose that is even beyond me. I was selfish. All I wanted was to be happy, instead of thinking of what made you happy. I love you and I still do but I realized your heart was somewhere else. I have tried to move on and not dwell on fantasies. It could never work in this world," she said as she slowly walked away.
"Maybe the only way is to leave this island and start over?" Her big eyes widened even more at the suggestion. Just then Apollus came strolling along the hallway.
"Cornelia, I need you to clean my room, after you clean Troy's mess," he said with a bitter twang to his voice. I held my breath, as the air suddenly tightened.
"Yes, my lord," she replied meekly as she scampered off with her head low.
"Where is Barbarius? I wanted to thank him for get_"
"You can save it, Troy. You are not out of the woods. You still walk around with your head held high, as if you failed to realize the magnitude of your trespass. Are you stupid? What possessed you to go along with that traitor and pretend to be guards so you can break in the hole? Can you not think for yourself?"
"I can think for myself, Apollus," I hissed.
"I could not tell," he retorted. "You have no idea, how bad it makes all of us look, including me. This is worse than what Barbarius did."
"I know. Do you not think I realize what I did was wrong? I know I erred. I should not have taken matters in my own hands but this justice system is corrupted and you know it!"
"I do not want to hear it!"
"Because you know it is true!" I shouted. I watched as Apollus' cheeks flushed bright red before he wagged his finger at me.
"Explain yourself to father. I do not want to talk to you," he said softly. I shrugged my shoulders in defiance as I walked back to my room. Suddenly, home did not feel like home anymore.
The dignitaries sat shoulder to shoulder around the round table for the tribunal. While I was held captive in my cell, the ruling nobles met at the 2nd floor at the meeting room that was situated above the main courtroom. Donned in white flowing togas; words of condemnation dripped out their palates. As the king held his gabble in his right hand, he proceeded to hear the charges that were brought before him, written in the scrolls. Unbeknownst to me, my life hanged in the balance. My fate was being decided as Apollus and Barbarius had cast their vote. Some called it a democratic procedure, something I heard of vaguely in my studies of the Greeks and the great Romans I had come to marvel. Everything though still ran by one person, who had all the cards in his hands. He could never be outvoted and had the final say.
"Thank you men for assembling these past three days for this urgent assembly. As you know, I wish to assure you that this will never ever happen again. The final decision as reads is that Romeos Augustus has been charged with a high count of treason for his subversive actions at the hole. The judgment as follows: death by public execution." Apollus stood up to begin clapping with the other men following along out of impulse.
"The judgment for Troy is as follows. Troy has been accused of assisting in breaking into the Hole, causing much disturbance to the justice system. His royal entitlement to the throne and his future role as Mediator has been stripped permanently. He will be forever blacklisted and all his belongings will be stripped of him so as not to be attached to the great name of our family. It is unfortunate what must take place but his life will be spared only if he renounces his wicked and subversive ways."
I was dripping wet as I crawled out the cool, clear water of the frigidarium. The cool water felt refreshing on my smooth skin, as I wrapped my towel around my damp body. I observed that the scars on my arm had mostly healed, although a few scars remained. I could not help but gaze at my reflection that looked back at me. I looked different but I also felt different; although I could not place a finger on it. I dismissed the image of my new haircut, as beads of water continued to drip down my forehead on my walk to the colonnaded changing room. For the first time, in three days, I had bathed my flesh. What once was a simple ritual was a luxury I had taken for granted. I ran my towel through my shorn hair, before changing into my tunic. As I walked towards my room, I saw one slave carrying a crate of scrolls, while another slave had hoisted over his shoulder, a chest of mines.
"What are you doing?" I exclaimed.
"We were ordered to clean out your room," one uttered in a thick Greek accent.
"Why? These are my belongings!" I hissed, as I yanked the chest away from his clutch.
"These are not yours anymore," he said briskly, as he tried to grab it away from me.
"Who gave you any orders to take my belongings without my permission?" I said as my eyes narrowed in anger.
"The King ordered it," he responded firmly. I stood there motionless, as the slaves dutifully emptied out my room in front of my eyes. As I ran inside my room, my room was nearly empty except for the wooden chair that lay propped off in the corner where the desk would have lied with the journal…
"Wait! Where did you place the journal?" I asked worriedly at the curly-haired slave, as he nonchalantly carried away a crate of scrolls.
"What are you talking about?" he responded.
"Miletus' journal. It was given to me by Apollus. Where is it?" I responded hastily.
"I do not know if I have it…" Abruptly, I snatched the crate and dumped it on the ground. Not knowing what quite what to do, the slave took a step back; as he clutched his chest in fear of what I might do next. Desperately, I rummaged through the scrolls, as I found the old lessons, but the letters from old friends were gone and so was the journal. As I salvaged what little I had left, I ran into my room. With the door closed, I slid down the wall in defeat.
Moments later, Odydus came to my door. Father wanted to see me. Little could prepare me for the face to face meeting with the man who deemed I should stay inside the hole for three long days so that I could learn my lesson, only for my belongings to be confiscated. All these feelings of resentment, anger, and despair festered inside me; waiting to come out. How could I face him after what he has done? Everything I had prepared to say quickly flew out the window as he turned around from the couch to stare at me from the corridor leading into the atrium.
"Father. I wanted to know…" I got lost in his piercing brown eyes that seemed to look though me with an intensity of fire.
"Troy," he answered in a cold tone.
"Thanks for having me released," I said meekly. This was my chance to have my say. What was I doing? As he motioned for me to step closer I could see his facial expressions in more vivid detail, as I stood several paces from the couch he sat on.
"Tell me, Troy. How do you think I felt when I found my keys were missing and my son was missing?" he said in a soft yet crisp tone.
"I suppose you were worried," I answered softly.
"Tell me how I must have felt when I found out my son was writing letters to that 'boy' behind my back, lied to Barbarius and myself that he was staying with the Aurelius' family, only to have snuck off with a 'friend' who was blacklisted. Then to find out they were in fact on their way to break into the prison, pretend to be guards so they could free a prisoner without my consent."
"I suppose you were mad at us," I said looking down.
"Mad is an understatement, Troy. Livid…infuriated…humiliated…that is what I felt," he said in an increasingly louder tone. "You have no idea how close you were to being killed yourself!" he hissed.
"I am sorry for what I done. I should not have taken the law in my own hands. You have taken everything from me; even grandfather's journal," I sighed.
"How do you feel when others take things from you?" he asked sharply.
"Good. Get mad. Stay mad all you want. You are just fortunate I went 'easy' on you," he said softly with lace of malice in his voice. "I suppose that could have been part of the problem. You were given so many chances, but yet you refused to subject yourself fully. Your heart was treacherous and I saw you going down the wrong path, when you associated with that scoundrel who is awaiting his just end."
"What are you going to do to Romeos?" I asked briskly.
"He is tried for sedition. The highest form spells death," he emphasized. My jaw tightened at the sound of the news, as I tried to swallow the bitterness of the news. "I warned you that boy was up to no good and you refused to listen. He only brought out the worst in you and now he coerced you into his foolishness."
"That 'boy' was my friend. Romeos was no angel, but he was the best friend I ever had," I said getting defensive. Father slowly rose from the couch and slowly walked towards me, head on.
"Well, now he is dead to me and he is going to be dead to you too," he snarled.
"Why public execution? He did not kill anyone, and the plot to free his father did not even work anyways. I understand if you want to lock him up for a really long time, and I could live with that choice, but death_" I pleaded.
"I do not care what you think right now. What has been spoken by the council and I must be carried out. Instead of running off taking the law into your hands, you could have followed the rules and procedures like everyone else in the law courts. Now you lost your rights to your own position!"
"It does not even matter anyways. You never care what I think anyways!" I bluntly cut in. "You would not have listened even if I was a Mediator. You refuse to see the truth in front of you that an innocent man is condemned to rot in the hole. Have there been valid eyewitness accounts that he actually stole from the treasury? Did you find what you were looking for before you burned his belongings in the valley?" Just as Apollus came through the velvety curtains blocking the interior rooms, he quickly found himself in hostile air.
"In our investigation we found a gold bar worth 10,000 acros buried outside their home in our last raid of the house. They claimed they never knew where it came from, but it was all the proof I needed. So please do not question me again, because my patience has just about run out for you." I gasped, feeling powerless and confused. How come I was last to know? Did this mean everything they told me was a lie? No, it could not be. All the trouble that I faced…we faced, would have been all in vain; everything!
"Troy, I am deeply disappointed you would rather believe traitors than your own family. You were warned against allowing your emotions cloud your judgment. Now you must pay for your crime. You no longer are entitled to any future royal duties. All your privileges are lost. As of today you are blacklisted and no longer a welcomed guest here," he said solemnly.
"I am your son. You never kicked Barbarius out even when he almost burned the palace down!" I snapped. I looked up and saw Barbarius face as he strolled in from the hallway leading into the atrium. I watched his eyes narrow in anger in my direction.
"It was a mistake, Troy," he responded sharply. "I suppose it was a mistake, releasing you from the hole!"
"Do not turn this on your brother!" father yelled in my face. "I will deal with Barbarius later," he said taking in deep breaths as he briefly looked back at Barbarius with a look of disappointment before turning back to me. "You are the disgrace here. You are the disappointment here. Why do I have an insolent runt for a son?" he roared as he turned his full rage against me.
"You made me this way!" I snapped. Wham! Without warning, I felt the cold powerful slap from father's hand as he struck my cheek as hard as he could. I nearly took a tumble as I clutched my contorted jaw in pain. As I pulled my hand away from my lips, I saw a dab of my own blood on the tip of my thumb. In that moment, I weakly looked into his eyes in horror. All I could see staring back at me were cold brown pupils. I slowly backed away from father's looming presence, as I looked around shamefully around the room. All eyes were fixed on me.
"I am sorry I was insolent," I muttered bitterly.
"Your 'sorry' lost all meaning. I do not even know who you are anymore. I cannot even bear to look at you. Why, Troy?"
"You were not there. I needed you. All I wanted was a father. I wanted you to be there for me, to let me know you still cared. I tried so hard to gain your approval; because I loved you… but I felt no matter what I did I was never good enough," I said as my voice began to quiver. I watched as father pursed his lips together. A piercing silence permeated the room as Apollus, Barbarius and a few slaves looked on anxiously.
"I do not even recognize my son anymore," he said softly as he shook his head in dismay.
Salty tears welled in my eyes as I began to walk away in humiliation. The home I thought I had no longer wanted me. As I walked towards Barbarius, he could barely stand to look at me. I wanted to apologize; to tell him I appreciated his redeeming me from the pit.
"Barbarius…" He walked away, shaking his head profusely. I choked.
"Maybe, we should send you back to the hole where you belong," Apollus said coldly.
"I am not going back," I answered resolutely. "I would rather runaway somewhere far."
"Where are you going to go? You cannot stay here. I can send you to the house of detention, because that is your only other option," he said at last; his words crisp and final. I refused to be taken alive; not again! I ran out the room; through the walls of the vestibule, as the walls around me seemed to grow narrower and narrower as I reached for the exit…
"The dogs will be waiting for you," called father from behind. I ignored his taunt as I left the house not knowing where to go. All I knew is that my only option was to leave the island. As I stopped to catch my breath across the other side of the road; the eerie silence was screeched by the growls of large canines. Released from their sheds, I was frozen in fear as not one…two…but three hounds came charging; flashing their pointed teeth. The fear kept me frozen in place as the dogs came ready for the kill…