Every time he returned, the household threw an immense party. The majority of the slaves were Jews, so they had their own celebration going on as a feast took place in the primary courtyard. While his father, sloshed with his Palestinian wine, would recite stories from his youth as an officer, Aquilus would then join his friend in the dances and the songs in the lesser courtyard. It was a seamless transition then, back to his father after he recovered from his drunkenness.
His wife, Flavia, had the most fun in sneaking out of the feasting.
Flavia was not a Jew, but she had the greatest respect for them all. She learned quickly of her husband’s split nationality and faith and she found it interesting, but ultimately encouraging and inspiring. Her participation in their celebrations was begged for by all involved. His mother adored her and did quite dote on her, for her want for a daughter was not fulfilled. Flavia believed, as most Romans were not nationally the pious type anyway, in God and the tradition of their forefathers.
As they snuck out of the feast for the first time this night, Flavia stopped him in the garden. She tugged his hand and had him turn to her.
“What is it, my love?” he asked, pulling her into dancing position. In the warm night air, as crickets chirped and the creatures of the night orchestrated music around them, the couple twirled across their own dance floor.
Flavia smiled lovingly up at him, her black eyes twinkling. The jewelry she wore in her dark curly hair caught the lamplight.
“I wanted the brave soldier to myself for a minute or two,” she answered. “Captain Aquilus-Reuben Aetius Aurelius Cassian ben-Hadassah,” she proclaimed, to get a feel for the name, while her husband laughed humbly, looking down at his sandaled feet. “Soon to be Legate-”
“No need to use the full title, My Princess,” he interrupted, laughing. He framed her face with his hands, adoring the little smile marks around her eyes and coral splay of lips. She grinned, revealing pearled teeth. “I’d love you if you kept it at Aquilus or Reuben.”
“Or Aquilus-Reuben,” she said with a coy shrug.
He kissed her forehead. “Too much to say.”
Flavia giggled and rose to her tiptoes too kiss her beloved captain.
“Aquilus,” she whispered gently, “I’ve come to be in the acquaintance of a man named Simon Peter. Perhaps you know him?”
The soon-to-be commander’s brow knitted as he searched for a face to match the name. It sounded Greek.
“I think I’ve heard of him,” he said carefully. “Was he the one who followed that man called Jesus of Nazareth?”
“So you do remember the name,” Flavia said, cheerful.
She parted her cheek from his chest and looked up into his Palestinian eyes. They beckoned her in, so softly, so meekly. Dark, doe-like lashes curtained the beautiful golden eyes as they disappeared behind his smile. Aquilus was such a charming, personable man, every inch a prince of the Eternal Empire. Possibly of the Eternal City one day. His dark curls were cut so shortly when he was on duty, but on his journey back home, they had grown to thick, short individual locks. She twirled a small curl on her finger as she gazed into his eyes.
You are so handsome, my beloved legate, she thought.
“Where did you meet him?”
They hadn’t stopped moving across the garden. To the music in the courtyard, they stepped forward, back, to each side, with intricate steps.
“I was nearing Golgotha,” she explained solemnly, “to tend to the condemned. He was there, and we spoke.” She smiled. “He may not be a smart man in the use of the word most known to us, but he is wise and kind.”
Aquilus nodded. Simon Peter was not known for much trouble. At least, not after the death of Jesus, the year before he was born. He was a simple man, a leader of the new faith given to him by Jesus. They did not do much, other than spread their faith and live in peace. Aquilus was not worried about them.
But in his perspective as a Jew, they were confusing. How could they, on a matter of blind faith, believe this man - this Jesus of Nazareth - to be the Son of God, the Messiah? It seemed too extreme for him to understand. He was friends with a few of the followers, and he could say that they were not educated very much and they were simple people. No rabbis, no high priests. Most were just slaves and middle class citizens. That was not a problem, but he could see that they would believe just about anything.
What became interesting was how courageous they were. Those who were arrested and punished and killed for having split off from the faith of their fathers showed themselves to have hearts of lions.
“I don’t doubt much of that about him at all,” Aquilus stated. “He seems to have been a high priest, if he wasn’t a fisherman.”
Flavia paused, then laughed. “Now he’s a ‘fisher of man’.”
The rhythm played in twirling motions, and Aquilus hummed to the song.
“Ashira, l’adonai,” he sang. “Ashira, l’adonai.”
“What does that mean?” his wife asked, leading him towards the music. Her eyes sparkled in the firelight, and her jewelry danced. “I’ve heard the lower classes proclaim such words, but I never knew what they meant in Latin.”
“‘Glory to God’,” he replied easily. “Most likely they’re praising Our Lord for having had enough faith in me.”
Flavia giggled. “God having faith in you, and not the other way around?”
“God was patient with me, to be the simplest.”
She laughed. He smiled.
As Flavia enjoyed herself, dancing with Domina Hadassah, Aquilus noticed Eiran standing, watching the festivities, instead of joining them. Rather strange, because for the last twenty-five years, he never missed a moment to enjoy himself. Presently, he seemed pensive. Debating. Fire danced in his eyes, but he was still, arms crossed, a stern look on his naturally soft face. After a moment he rubbed his chin, his brow furrowing.
Aquilus rolled his eyes and laughed as he crossed the floor of mosaics.
“So are you becoming stone or are you trying to be a Greek?” he scoffed. He stood with his slave, surveying the singing and dancing. All the men were locking arms and yelling the song to the heights.
Eiran snapped out of his daze and huffed. “Shut up.” He turned and started to walk towards the balcony.
Aquilus grinned. There was normal Eiran.
With no hesitation, he followed. It was what they had done all their lives; if something was amiss or just worth speaking about, then the balcony was the place to do it. It took no thought to follow.
“What is it, my suddenly so thoughtful friend?” asked Aquilus. Eiran didn’t look back, leaning into the balcony, overlooking the lawns. He set himself on the marble balustrade and searched for his friend’s attention. “Please acknowledge me.”
Eiran let out a small laugh, bending over himself. He rested his elbows on the top of the balustrade beside the prince of the villa, hunching his shoulders a little. “No one shall get a moment of peace when the son of Palestine enters their life,” he said as if he were a prophet.
Aquilus decided to play along. “Which book is that?” he inquired, eyes squinted, absently looking up. “I still haven’t been able to memorize all those enigmatic prophecies.”
“Prophet Me,” replied Eiran.
They laughed at their joke as all old friends do. Once the lightheartedness subsided, Eiran looked up at his master and sighed. “But this is serious, Aquilus. I need you to understand.”
His master nodded, prepared for receiving Eiran’s mind and heart and soul.
The slave took in a deep breath and paused, as if he was still debating whether to speak of it. “I was going to tell you in a day or two, but tonight will do just fine.” Again he paused. “Domine, I need money.”
Aquilus nodded. “What I have is yours, Eiran,” he said without hesitation, “you know that.”
His slave smiled and sat up on the balustrade. “I haven’t even told what for.”
The prince of the household shrugged indifferently. “I trust you fully, and generally, I don’t care.”
Eiran slowly nodded. “You’re a good man, Aquilus,” he said finally. “And, I know this may surprise you, but I wish for you to relieve me of service.”
Aquilus then frowned. “Will you leave?” he asked accusingly.
His slave sighed out. “My mother told Domina Hadassah that I was planning to study to become a priest,” he quietly said. “All I need is my leave from here. The Sanhedrin has agreed to see me. I may be a little old for starting, but the priest Abidan says I’m worthy.”
The young prince grinned. “That’s wonderful, Eiran. Abidan has not been hasty with his choice in you.” He paused, his smile dissipating. “Will you be leaving the villa? Leaving us?”
Eiran nodded sadly. “I’ll be living in the synagogue during my studies,” he replied.
Aquilus deflated slightly.
He hadn’t ever been a day without his best friend. Now he was to live years without him? He should have been happy for him, to celebrate the synagogue’s blessing within him, but he couldn’t help but feel selfishly unhappy. Eiran’s presence was like feeling logical. Aquilus himself was bright and intelligent, but Eiran was something else entirely. He depended on him.
“Please, Aquilus,” Eiran’s tone rode on desperate and sentimental all at once, “my dream is to be in the Temple, to call upon the Name of God, to offer the sacrifices. I cannot achieve that still in service to another. My service is to God.” He waited for a response, but all he got was a slight nod of the head. He gently smiled. “Look, we’ll make a deal; I won’t be your slave anymore, but I’ll still be your best friend.”
Aquilus grinned at that. Such a childish way of putting it, really- of course, he would say none of that. He embraced his friend. Immediately Eiran hugged him back.
“I relieve you of your duties in the villa entirely,” he said.
Eiran let out a sigh of relief as they parted. “God bless you, Aquilus,” he breathed, smiling wide. “I’ll take my leave in two days.”
“Don’t forget to remind me to say goodbye,” laughed the prince.
The day was over, and the guests slowly left the banquet, drunk, in love, or perhaps both. In a more sober manner the slaves and Jewish guests went back to their own lives. Aquilus and Eiran spent the rest of the festivities talking about the Temple, and Flavia joined them. She, too, was both overjoyed and saddened that her husband’s best friend was to carry on his future, away from them in his studies. However, there was absolutely no way to be disheartened as Eiran wore such a serene, felicitous grin on his face. It was impossible to be bitter as he spoke of his excitement, somewhat like a child.
“I just pray that I see you,” Eiran said quietly after a fresh moment’s meditation. His gaze returned to Flavia and Aquilus. “I don’t want to lose you in gaining My Lord in the most intimate way.”
Aquilus embrace him, and Flavia held his hand. “Never,” urged the prince, “feel you are closed behind our doors. Swear it.”
Eiran nodded and they parted.
That night, Aquilus took his wife’s hand.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. In the shelter of their suite, he kissed her.
“For what?” she asked, pure content in her voice, when they parted.
Aquilus stroked his thumb softly over her cheek, cherishing the moments he had with his beloved. “For making the homecoming everything to look forward to.” When she was silent with touched surprise, he gathered her fine-boned hands in his. “There are men I lead who have no one who will welcome them as you do when they return home. They are alone and sad, and my heart is so full when I’m reminded of you, my love. Your memory is what makes the days longer, giving me all the more time to return, still worthy of you. If the days were swift as Apollo’s chariot, if I had not your face engraved in my dreams, my life would be nothing but heartache. Nothing but fear under my father.” He looked down at his sandals, which were new, just given to him - “Flavia, I speak so much of him. I think so much of him.”
His wife captured his chin and made him look up at her. “He loves you,” she said simply, “and believe me, I know he may not show it. He is beyond proud of you and he cares deeply for you.” She smiled. “When you leave, he talks relentlessly of you.” Her chin quivered and her eyes sparkled again, this time with a film of tears. “And he only wishes for you to come home, his accomplished son.” She began to cry.
Aquilus grew concerned. Guiding her gently to the bed, he set her shaking, sobbing form on the top and sat beside her. Gripping her shoulders, he searched for her eyes.
“Hush, Flavia,” he murmured, embracing her. “Tell me what is the matter.”
Flavia didn’t embrace him back. Her tears rolled down his neck.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” she made out between heaves of sobs, “I never wanted anyone to know.”
Aquilus frowned and looked down at her. “What is it?” he asked firmly. He caressed her hair, attempting to calm her.
“Promise me that you’ll love me,” she begged, her eyes locked in his, “promise me that, after I tell you this, you will always love me. Swear it.”
Without a breath between, he nodded. “I swear it fully.” He kissed her gently. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
His wife embraced him, seeming like a child, helpless but protected within him. “Aquilus, I was so happy,” she whispered, “we were finally going to have a family-”
“A child?” gasped the prince, holding her to gaze at her. His eyes danced with excitement. “We’re going to have a child?”
Flavia’s chin quivered. “The child died within me,” she cried. “He died!”
Aquilus felt numb. His face fell, like stone, turning horrified.
So many thoughts were rushing through his head. He felt as though someone had given him the world, and it crumbled in his arms. He was drowning, suffocating, in his panicked mind. The world was an ocean, with destiny gracing its horizons, so said his father, but now, he was lost and caught in a tumult.
Flavia sighed out shakily and closed her eyes.
“I went to the Greek Doctor Stylianos,” she said, “and he told me that I may never be able to carry children.”
The soft sob he let go of broke her heart again.
“I love you,” he cried quietly, “I love you so much.” He held her an arm’s length away and set his gaze deep into hers. His eyes sparkled with tears. “If God decides that we will not have a child, let it be so. I will not protest against Him. I love you more than my desire for a son. I love Him more than my confusion, my anger.” He kissed her forehead. “This is all right. I trust Our Lord.”
“How can you trust Him even now?” she sobbed.
He wondered how he did. He only knew how to trust, not how to question.
Sigh. Bye bye, Eiran.