Chapter 25: "Love Games"
For a moment I forgot about everyone else in the house. I forgot about the nameless slaves in the background dusting the statues. I forgot the other noted figures of the house looming in the interior rooms. The only person I saw was Julia. Her eyes roved from line to line. A growing smile was creeping along her face. Then her supple features began to scrunch into a frown. What was wrong? Was the message lost in translation?
"Is everything alright?" I asked with a sheepish smile.
"Oh nothing," she replied, folding the letter in half. "It was just a bit hard to read in some parts."
"I thought the letter was pretty clear," I frowned.
"So you read your friend's letter?" she asked, raising her eyebrows.
"No," I lied. She stared at me with her brown eyes; unflinching. "But he told me what he wanted to tell you. He really likes you," I added.
"Well I noticed the writer seems to have spent some time with me, as if he has known me for years. They are very observant I see. I wonder who this mystery person is," she uttered wistfully. She then looked up at me with a toothy grin. My heart was pounding harder against my chest like a drum. Did she know it was me? Part of me wished she didn't. The other part did. The way she smiled made me want to smile. It was infectious.
"Here is your towel sir," Claudia announced from behind. I turned around to face the matured woman as she handed the striped towel.
"You seem to be in good spirits," Claudia chuckled. "Julia, it looks you did not need any help entertaining the guests," she added. I draped the towel over my head to dry my face. My cheeks were burning red. Julia cleared her throat as her smile vanished.
"Troy! You came back to visit," Julius exclaimed running up next to Claudia. I quickly ran the towel through my damp curls before draping the towel over my shoulder.
"Greetings Julius," I smiled weakly. Julia smiled at her brother from the couch as he ran up to hug me.
"I heard Clitus won. I wish I could have seen it!" Julius exclaimed.
"It was best you did not come! There was a riot in the stands. You could have gotten hurt," Claudia said shaking her head profusely, her brows filling with creases.
"It was not that bad. It is not like the whole stadium broke into fighting. It was just the lower quarter section, according to Julian," he replied smartly. "But I am glad he won and that you won. Now it is Julian' turn to win. Maybe he needs more of that luck because he is running out," he laughed. I watched Julia shake her silky hair back as she tried not to burst into a giggle fit. Her brother was quite a character indeed!
"I still have that locket you gave me. You could have it back," I said as rubbed the shiny brass horse between my fingers.
"But that is your gift. It is yours," he uttered. "By the way, what made you come to visit?"
"Oh Julius! Why don't we have you washed up for the evening meal shall we?" Claudia answered in a soothing tone. "I think we should leave those two alone."
"Why do they need to be left alone? Do you like her?" he blurted. Was I still blushing?!
"Oh Julius, you and your silly ideas," Julia said shaking her head, trying to keep a composed face. "Should you be minding your manners?"
"You sound like mother!" he scoffed, scrunching his face in dismay. Julia bit her lip. As Claudia escorted Julius into the interior rooms, I could barely look at Julia in the eyes. They were already giving me away. The walls were slowly melting.
"I have to go," I mumbled.
"You are not staying for dinner with the family?" she shrugged.
"Maybe another time," I answered softly. It was not like I was a part of the family anyways. I was accustomed to being alone… most of the times.
"Tomorrow maybe?" she replied with a twinge of optimism in her voice.
"Maybe," I shrugged, mimicking her gesture.
"Goodness! You are so mysterious," she replied, trying to stifle a laugh. "Have you always kept secrets from your friends and family?" she asked, growing serious again.
"Not all the time. Some secrets are better left unsaid. Only a few can handle it," I answered in an undertone as I heard her mother calling for Claudia in the background.
"I can handle anything. You just have to start trusting people," she replied in an undertone. I flashed a reassuring smile to quell her troubled face. I hated to see her frown. I was so used to building walls because… it made me feel safe. How could she ever understand my past; a past I had tried to forget? I was tired of carrying the burden of my mistakes. Why did she have to bear it when all I wanted to do was to protect her from the scars?
"So how did it go?" Clitus asked sheepishly when I got back inside; away from the steady assault from the cold rains.
"It went fair I suppose," I shrugged.
"Did she read the whole letter?" he pressed on.
"I believe so. She said some parts were 'hard to read' but what she did read was that the 'writer' seems to really know her."
"What does she mean that some parts were hard to read?" Clitus asked. I was not used to Clitus asking all these questions. He usually only asked one question and nodded his head the whole conversation.
"I do not know. The letter was clear to me when I read over it. Maybe all of this was a surprise to her and she just needs time to digest the words." Clitus nodded as he watched me wipe away the beads of water drizzling down my forehead. Then it hit me. The letter was damp! The ink must have smeared! How much of the letter did she actually understand?! I had no idea!
Clitus must have been satisfied with my answer for he remained silent as we headed to the triclinium for a meal with Claudius and his family. It was the last night his sons would spend here before returning to their own homes. Maxis would return home with his wife Porcia. She looked no older than Julia and even slightly resembled her but with wavier hair. I noted she was awfully silent and aloof, as Claudius chattered with his sons about the great disturbance at the stadium. I tried to dismiss the thoughts of Julia as I sipped my glass of wine.
"They are trying to blame it on the Blues, that we started the unrest. I do not care if I have to speak to the Emperor himself. Our team does not deserve to be penalized!" Claudius shouted, pounding his fist against the table.
"Calm down, dear," Ofelia hushed. Her slender fingers wrapped around his meaty hand as the goblets rattled from the vibration.
"One of the Red fans pushed Julius first, causing him to bump into Magnus. I saw it with my very eyes," Octavius chimed in. "Their fans started it. Troy was an eyewitness too. Is that not right, Troy?" he said turning his head over to me. All eyes were on me as I had just filled my mouth with a chunk of bread.
"He is right," I nodded, as I gulped down the partly digested morsels. "I saw one of the young men throw a long nail at Clitus chariot," I swallowed.
"See! That is all the testimony I need to give to those crooked officials!" Claudius exclaimed. I watched as Porcia rolled her eyes as if this whole conversation bored her to tears. As one of the slave girls came to take away the finished plates, I could not help but notice the disappointment and frustration that read through Claudius' tired face. First his son was left injured earlier this year, then Cato sprained both his ankles, and now our team's right to compete in the remainder of the Ludi Games was being questioned. Granted I had won and so did Clitus but everything seem to be taking a turn for the worst!
We wished Maxis and his wife Porcia their farewell the following morning as Caetus and another slave helped gather their belongings to the team of horses hitched outside. Most of the burlap sacks belonged to Porcia. Why she needed so many clothes for such a short stay was beyond my understanding. I watched as Octavius bid his farewell on the couch to the young couple. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was staying home with his parents. It dawned on me that I was staying in his old room! What would become of me if he stayed? I would not be evicted, right? I was a loyal team member after all. I was a winner; I was valuable.
The sky was filled with low gray clouds, casting the city in grey melancholy. I stayed around in the stable by the house watching Caetus sweep up bits of hay and mounds of manure. He seemed to have done most of the chores, leaving Clitus and I with little to do. He seemed not to notice my presence as he arched his back to sweep the pile of refuse to the back door facing the alley.
"Anything else you want us to do?" I asked.
"Not really. I think I have a handle on most things here," he shrugged.
"I suppose training is done," I shrugged half-heartedly.
"I am afraid so. Sorry to disappoint you and Clitus," he sighed. "There is always next year though," he shrugged.
"That was wrong of the officials to pull our faction out the remainder of the games," I sighed, anger seeping out my tone.
"Claudius left to speak to someone overseeing the games. But it is up to them. There is nothing you or I can do about it," he replied softly. His shoulders shrank in defeat before he continued sweeping in silence. I left the stable disillusioned as I walked back inside the warm abode of Claudius' home. As much as I hated giving up on something, I realized how powerless both of us were in this situation. I came to loathe that feeling.
"Everything alright?" Octavius asked with a dim smile across his face. He greeted me as he lay on his back on the atrium couch.
"Yes of course," I lied.
"You sound very convincing," Octavius chuckled. "You are just in time though. A civil servant just came in while you were away. He has a gift for you that will lift your spirits." Octavius pointed to the medium size burlap sack sitting at the foot of the couch. Without haste I rushed to his side, kneeling on my knees to pull away the sling. Inside were shiny copper denarii. There were too many to count. A growing smile swept across my face.
"It finally came!" I exclaimed. "All the hard work was worth this prize," I gleamed, throwing the coins in the air. I could barely contain myself. I felt like a young child again…or at least how I imagined one would act like. I had no childhood memories to go off of; just invented fabrications of my fragmented life. But finally there was something left to rejoice about.
"The city is yours my friend!" Octavius uttered softly.
"I could not have agreed more!" There was nothing left for me to do here. I was going out. There were still many shopping districts and civic places I had yet to see. As I was preparing to head out, Clitus was walking in through the front entrance.
"You are leaving?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes of course. My prize money finally came today. Is that not great news Clitus?" I smiled. Clitus nodded silently.
"Did you get yours too?" I asked. Clitus shook his head no.
"You should get it soon," I shrugged, tossing him a smile.
"Hopefully," he said, plastering a weak grin. As I turned on the heels of my sandals…
"Wait!" Clitus called out in a small voice. I turned around to face him.
"The letter?" he asked sheepishly.
"Oh that. I almost forgot about that," I chuckled. "I can write something really quick before I leave. It will not be too hard. I write the words anyways," I shrugged.
"Tell her that I enjoy her smile and the way she makes me feels as if there is no one else in the room but her," he added. I could see him smiling as the words fluttered from his quivering lips.
"I will be certain to add that in," I smirked. After composing several lines of heartfelt words, I folded the letter and put it in a small letter casing in a small sling I slung around my shoulders; not far from my knife. I went out into the stable and mounted Rufus the horse and away I went.
I enjoyed the sight of the colorful markets. Garments of almost every color lined the wooden tables along the narrow streets of the shopping district. I especially loved seeing the different shades of blues. Those were my favorite. I perused through the soft fabrics between my calloused fingers, enjoying the smoothness of the silk to the woolly fabrics that clung on the lines. I picked up a cottony tunic and a new cloak to protect me from the cold autumn rains. I reminded myself that shopping was not the only thing on my agenda. Next on the stop was the baths! I enjoyed the immersion from cold to warm to hot, only to cool off again. One could never tire of the lavender and expensive oils that drizzled down your body as your muscles relaxed against the hands of the attendants. As I was finishing my massage, I saw Hyros and Marius coming from the gymnasium floors, drenched in their own sweat.
"Enjoying your massage I see," Hyros smirked.
"Who does not enjoy a good massage?" I replied swiftly, wrapping the towel around my waist as I whisked myself from the bench. "So what have you two been up to?"
"Well Marius and I have been sharing living space in our new apartment. Our landlord is such a pest though," he snorted. "But I hope to be leaving that place soon once our business takes root."
"At least we are not too far from the bakery below," Marius grinned. "It is a wonderful thing to wake up to the smell of fresh bread each morning," Marius said closing his eyes.
"Hold on there, Marius. In a moment's notice you will be drooling all over yourself," Hyros replied whimsically.
"So where do you stay?" Marius asked, trying not to laugh.
"I stay with Claudius. He is the manager of the Blue team. He owns race horses so I rent a room on the 2nd floor, the same room his son used to stay at."
"His son moved out I am assuming," Hyros replied in a casual tone.
"Actually he moved back in," I said softly. "But there is enough room for Clitus and I," trying to sound sure of myself.
"Does he have any daughters?" Hyros asked. There was a glint in his eyes. Marius shook his head as he tried to keep from giggling.
"No. Just two sons. His older son has a place of his own. Why do you ask?"
"Oh nothing," Hyros shrugged. "Anyways I saw Theseus today," he said, changing the subject. "I do not know if you would want to see him after what happened," he replied sheepishly. "I am sorry I told him. How is Clitus anyhow?"
"It was bound to come out anyways but let us just say Deopolus returned empty-handed. But I am not mad at Theseus. I just want him to know that."
"He stays less than a mile where we reside. I can write you the directions of where he stays if you have parchment on you," Hyros shrugged.
"Hyros. Why would Troy bring parchment to the baths?" Marius chuckled, shaking his head from side to side. I remembered why I enjoyed Marius' light-heartedness. I ran back to the bench where I had reclined earlier and dug into my sling. I found the letter case with the letter. That was the only parchment I had.
"Here," I replied handing Hyros the thin letter case to write on. Marius abruptly cleared his phlegmy throat, stopping his laughter.
"You were always the studious type. Do you have a quill too?" he added sarcastically.
"No. I did not bring one?" I sighed.
"Just remember to go to the Templus Pacis district. His house is along the via dei Fori Imperiali, just a few block south right on the hills. He stays on the same corner where the Messenger post is located. I believe he resides on the second floor of the metal shop, third house down from the corner. Will you remember that?"
"I think so," I gulped.
"Good! Well Marius and I will be getting our sweat scraped off. See you around later," he waved. Before long I realized it was getting late. I grabbed a quick meal to quench my growling belly before heading home. When I arrived at Claudius' residence, Clitus was eagerly awaiting for me. Why was he so happy to see me?
"How did Julia like the letter?" he asked sheepishly. Ugh! I forgot to deliver the letter! I was trying so hard to remember where Theseus stayed and then looking for something to eat, I had completely forgotten. Should I tell him the truth? Lying seemed to be really convenient at the moment.
"I ran out of time," I sighed. I watched Clitus' shoulders shrink a little. "But do not worry I will give it to her tomorrow. I promise," I smiled. "By the way, what did Claudius say about my rooming arrangement?" I asked sheepishly.
"He said you can stay there for now. Octavius will reside in a room downstairs, which will be convenient for him since he cannot walk up and down the steps," Clitus replied. All I heard was 'I can stay.'
I kept my word. I went to Julia's residence after breakfast was over the next day. I was greeted this time by Claudia at the door. As I walked in, Julian came up to greet me. He was a bit surprised to see me visit so early in the day but he was happy nonetheless I came to see how he was faring, although I really came for Julia. He seemed not to care anymore about the black bruise underneath his left eye. He called for Julia to come down to get the letter.
I heard footsteps, only to see an older woman, her back slightly hunched, as she shuffled to the atrium with a look of curiosity at my befuddled expression. That must be her grandmother. Where was Julia?
"I can give the letter to Julia. She must be in her room," Julian replied simply. I tried to mask my disappointment. Just as I walked out the door and into the fresh sunlight from outside, I heard someone calling my name. The voice was coming from above. It almost sounded angelic. The gods must have good news to share with me.
"Troy!" Julia called from her second story window.
"Julia," I smiled, shading my eyes from the sunlight. "It is so nice to see you again."
"Same to you Troy. I got another mysterious letter from my secret admirer. I think I already know my admirer but I kind of like this game," she snorted. Her laughter was unlike anything I heard. The closest thing I could describe it to be was the sound of a bird, especially if she laughed hard enough. But it was endearing. "One day my prince will come and sweep me away from this dungeon," she replied dreamily. Every time she smiled my heart fluttered. I hopelessly liked her more and more.
"You need to get out the house more!" I taunted with a mischievous grin.
"Are you going to free me? Mother would scold me for running off with a man. She would say it was scandalous. But I love the idea nonetheless," she replied with a smile.
"You probably know more of the city than I do," I shrugged. "I could finally get a proper tour."
"I could give you a tour of the city if you like. It shall be fun." It was settled. We would spend the day together. But the weather had other plans. Not long after I returned home from prancing around in the city, it began to rain. For the next few days the rain fell almost non-stop, dragging time to a halt. The sounds of arguing amongst the shopkeepers, the laughter of street children, and the clatter of horse hooves were replaced by the rhythmic splatters of raindrops pelting the shingled roof in a repetitious manner. To pass the time, I decided I was going to help Clitus learn how to write his own letters. I would teach him how to express himself in Latin a language he spoke fluently. While I taught him the basics I knew, I could not help but feel like a hypocrite that I was falling for the same person he adored. A part of me felt guilty every time I wrote the letters, knowing that I meant every word I penned. I just hoped Clitus would not find out.
After a week of rains, the clouds finally parted. Finally! It was refreshing to see sunlight peek out through the gray clouds. I would wait until noon when the sun reached its zenith for the fleeting warmth of the golden sun to bathe the muddy streets. However Clitus was eager to follow along. This was not part of the plan. But I hated to tell him no. We both yearned to get out the house.
Once we arrived at the place, I was greeted by the tall fellow that had greeted me earlier in the week. His frame was packed with muscle as he stared both of us down. But today he did not look so stone-faced. Perhaps he had gotten use to my face.
"Come," he uttered in a deep tone. Clitus and I almost tiptoed into the atrium, filled with the natural sunlight beaming from above. I was greeted by the smell of incense that filled my nostrils in delight.
"Sit," he ordered. We obliged as we sat down on the couch.
"So you are here to see Julia. I would speak to the father first… but he is not home and Julian is gone too. But I believe the grandfather will be coming home soon for supper."
"It is alright Brutus. I know them," answered a soft voice coming through the tablinum behind where we sat. It was Julia. She plastered a reassuring grin at the young man who was no doubt in the same age range as Octavius who I believed to be in his early 20s.
"Alright, can I get you anything?" he asked in a softer tone.
"I am well unless these two would like something to drink?"
"No I am good for now," I smiled. Clitus nodded in agreement. The guardsman slowly skirted to the edge of the tablinum, blending in with the statues. Something about his presence made me feel uneasy. I could sense Julia read my discomfort. She could read me like a book.
"Do not mind my escort," she replied in an undertone, plopping down on a couch across from us. "He is rather gentle once you get to know him," she assured. "So you have another letter to deliver me?" she said extending her hand outward. I blushed.
"No. No letter today," I replied simply.
"Oh okay. So what exactly are your intentions in going on this tour," she smirked.
"I want to see the city. It is a big city and there are still many places I would like to see and familiarize myself with. And I suppose you and Brutus can give us a ride perhaps," I answered smoothly. Julia kept her steady eyes on me as she quietly nodded her head.
"I suppose that is why you came today. I need to fix myself up before we go," she replied with a smile as she jolted from the plush white couch. She skipped out the room. I could not help but laugh how silly she could be. She was already beautiful.
"I cannot wait," I uttered aloud. I looked to my left and saw Clitus. There was no enthusiasm in his face. He looked as if he was going to a funeral.
"I do not know if I feel like going anymore," Clitus muttered under his breath.
"Why not?" I asked. Clitus rolled his eyes.
"I think you know why," he answered coolly. What did he know?!
"It is obvious she has eyes for someone else," he replied softly as he scooted away from me. A wave of guilt rippled over me. I had not signed the last letter. I left out the name.
"I am sorry Clitus," I muttered. "But I warned you she may not feel the same way. You cannot be mad at me," I retorted. Clitus pursed his lips together before looking away.
"Come on, we are still friends, right," I smiled. Silence. A sigh escaped my lips.
"This is petty. Both of us like her… so what? It happens!" Clitus rose from the couch and marched out the room. He was mad. He did not have to say anything. His actions said it all.
"Greetings Troy!" I looked to my side and it was Menelaus coming into the atrium just as Clitus was leaving.
"Hello, sir," I replied, plastering a fake smile.
"Good of you to visit. I wonder who you came to see," he uttered, giving way to a small smile across his leathery skin.
"I came to see your grandchildren. I have become quite fond of them," I answered softly.
"Oh I see that now. Who did you say you reside with again?" he asked walking towards me.
"I stay with Claudius' family. He owns race horses," I replied.
"Oh, horse races for the Blues I am assuming. You and Julian love that sport dearly do you," he replied wistfully. His face grew solemn at the draw of his words.
"His mother and father worry about him competing. I hate to meddle with his decisions since he is seventeen years of age but parents know what is best for their offspring," he uttered sternly.
"I suppose you are right but his parents should see that this is his dream. Even if they do not understand it now, they will eventually come to respect that decision," I replied swiftly.
"So your parents accept that you have chosen the path to be a racer?" he asked raising his silvery brows at me.
"They do not know," I uttered in a small voice.
"Oh that is right. They would not know you are even racing unless you told them. You moved from Aegea to Rome correct?" I nodded.
"Ah Aegea… the place legends are made of," he replied in a whimsical way. I could see a glint ignite in his brown eyes. A brief smile graced his stoic features.
"So how was your upbringing in the island?" he asked as he slowly paced up and down the room. I paused. I was not quite certain how to answer the question or whether I wanted to answer it.
"Grandfather Menelaus, you are back early," Julia uttered softly as she scratched her pinned locks. Thank the gods she came. Now can we leave?
"I do not mean to be rude but I think we had somewhere to be going," I answered sheepishly.
"With whom?" the grandfather asked. I froze as I eased myself from the couch.
"Well…um…I was hoping Julian was here," I stammered.
"He is not here. His father took him to see his old instructor at the Rhetoric school," he replied matter-of fact.
"What were you two discussing?" Julia replied sheepishly.
"Oh we were discussing about Troy and his life in Aegea."
"So that place really exist grandfather?" Julia answered softly.
"It certainly does. And he was just about to tell us his upbringing there. Is that not right Troy?" he answered staring straight at me. Only his eyes were smiling. I reluctantly sat back down on the couch.
"Um…well…it was comfortable I suppose. I imagine it is similar to your children and grandchildren's upbringing. We had plenty of slaves to cater to our needs. You could say we were wealthy."
"What position did your father hold?" he asked scratching his pronounced chin.
"He was a king," I replied softly.
"You are royalty! Is that the secret you were hiding?" she exclaimed.
"You certainly could have fooled me," the grandfather snorted.
"I would love to be the daughter of a king," Julia uttered wistfully. "I did not realize there were still kings ruling in the Empire," she said shaking her head. "What was his name?" she asked.
"Acropolus. He carried the family name Acertius," I replied briskly.
"What a coincidence our family bears that name, Acertius too," Julia said, walking towards her grandfather who was hovering over me.
"That family name is very rare. What was your grandfather's name?" the grandfather asked, cupping his hands at the edge of his chin.
"His name was Miletus," I replied. His eyes widened at my words. In silence, he sat to the left of me on the couch. My body tightened as he adjusted the folds of his toga before straightening his posture.
"My brother's name was Miletus," he replied in a sober tone. The room grew eerily quiet. My mouth dropped. How was that possible? What were the chances of this happening?! I sat lifeless on the couch, trying to process the words.
"I know what you are thinking. And I never thought I would be speaking to a descendant of a great man…Miletus," he said gesturing his hands as he spoke. "I believe you and I are connected. I am looking at my lost blood," he said extending his veiny hands towards me…