Months seemed to roll by in a blink. Eiran was gone, and the weight upon both Aquilus and Flavia grew heavier with every moment of unparted lips. Their silence led to their persecution, and through their persecution they stood silent.
Morning came and the day went as normal. Aquilus woke, praying that what his wife had told him was just a nightmare, but even now he knew it was truth.
He sighed. God, I don’t understand why. Please tell me why. I need a reason why. Flavia fears I don’t love her anymore, because the child is dead. As if she is at fault.
He opened his eyes, brow furrowing. Did he dare say Who was at fault?
A knock at the door was a welcome distraction.
“What?” he called.
A slave opened the door, her head angled down. “The villa is in the Esteemed company of the Prefect Ahenobarbus Thracius-”
“What?” he echoed, now an exclamation. He jumped out of bed.
“Your father invites you to dine with him this morning.”
Having not looked up at all, she closed the door.
Aquilus sighed. His father. One of the people he’d rather not see when he was upset.
The meal was a sea of the uniform.
The days of the Zealots were a generation past, but now there were the Christians. Those peace-loving cults. Cassian, at the head of the table, couldn’t look more sour as he swished his wealthy strawberry wine.
“If these tame sheep can be corralled,” the Commander Pompeius growled over his umpteenth plate of boiled eggs. He was a portly old man with two well-rounded chins on his neckless shoulders. A bloated belly struggled under his tunic as he wolfed down more food. Aquilus had the discomfort of having to sit beside him.
“They may not be warlords,” hollered the soft-voiced, Carthaginian Captain Naevius as he scratched his rough, salt-and-pepper jaw, “but they have the hearts of lions. We have tried intimidating them. It does not work.”
Captain Scaevola grunted. “None of the Christians I have seen have recanted. This new faith has suddenly been a revelation.” He looked far away. The Gothic-born Roman, bearing ash blonde hair and moss-green eyes, always resembled a Druid when he thought. He was a strong young officer with a soft jaw and a short, round nose. A fresh wave of freckles splashed across his fair face.
Aquilus nodded slightly. One man he knew, Tacitus, a slave in the villa, had been executed for being a Christian. His face had been completely serene- he was proud of who he was and who his God was. Brave move in front of a legion of Romans.
Prefect Thracius hadn’t spoken. He sat at Cassian’s right hand, opposite of Aquilus, sitting beside the Druid of a captain. His auburn hair was combed and anointed, so Aquilus guessed he had come before the morning, sometime in the late hours. His tunic was pressed and his armor shined. He seemed a muscly peacock, adorned with the metal ornaments of a man in high standing. A chain around his neck, rings on his thick fingers. His dust brown eyes had never left the prince of the villa. Marks of slow age crinkled as he narrowed his gaze, now more precise. As he set his jaw confidently, his short auburn beard shone thick in the now bright sunlight. He was a tall man, hardly having been outside the battlefield. He was a proud, arrogant pillar of muscle.
He silently sipped his wine.
“What do you want to do about them?” asked Cassian, glaring dark eyes at his host of soldiers. After a moment, his eyes rested on his son.
Aquilus did not feel applied to this. He passively popped an almond in his mouth, finding the polished surface of the table to be very interesting.
As a Roman, the Christians personally didn’t worry him. It was a moral ideology, not a rebellion. They were preachers of peace and love, not harbingers of war. They were loyal to the Divine Emperor.
As a Jew, however, he was concerned by them. If they kept growing in size, would they do anything to those still waiting for the Messiah? What of the Temple? After all, they did say that the mighty place of worship was the ‘old covenant’. If it meant nothing anymore, then who knew what they would do?
“I say we learn more,” proposed Scaevola, sipping his wine, “before we make decisions. Let’s remember, this is the Caesar’s authority anyway. Not ours.”
“The Caesar does not want these scum in his Empire,” Cassian cut in. “Filthy insurgents. Always defying the traditional sacrifices.”
Aquilus winced slightly. So far, no one had noticed that he pretended to be sick every passing feast of the gods. He would never burn incense for Jupiter, and he would take any measures to keep it that way. He sympathized for the Christians in that sense. He knew what they needed to get themselves out of.
“What do you think, Aquilus?”
His heart stopped. He looked up from his food. Undoubtedly there had been an argument and Scaevola was pleading him for another vote. Aquilus liked him. He spoke his mind in front of those who didn’t wish to hear it. Right now his grassy eyes were set more like iron on him, begging - ordering - him to agree.
Beside him, the silent Thracius pointed his wordless murders upon him. The murder of free will.
Thracius hadn’t spoken a word. He watched, waited, calculated. Steely as the cold marble effigies all over the Eternal Empire. His eyes were alive, his mouth dead. Despite never saying a word, he was as persuasive as the hailed orators of the palaces in Italia. Eloquent as Socrates.
Aquilus sat up straighter.
“I second Scaevola,” he said quietly. Moans of exasperation followed, and his father didn’t look happy about his vote. Thracius said nothing. “We hardly know these people. Perhaps it would be best to learn about them, to see why they do what they do. At least it would give us more reason to prosecute them.”
“We have reason enough,” growled Pompeius. “They refuse to sacrifice incense to Jupiter and to the Divine Emperor.”
Aquilus slowly nodded, chewing the inside of his cheek. “As a whole, or as so individually?” he argued.
Naevius suddenly grinned wickedly. “Some may not be that strong. If we watch, wait, and learn, then maybe we’ll find something to get into. Some teaching, some prayer or something. Anything to bring them down. This takes patience and cunning, friends.”
That may or may not have been what he meant. He looked up at his partner in debate, who sat directly across, and he noticed a shadow of panic on his face. Before a flash of lightning could have left the sky, so did the expression on his face. Scaevola sat silently listening, as the rest of the soldiers praised Aquilus and began speaking of taking measures. The young captain rested his chin on a hand. While Scaevola did his best, his position and the look in his eyes showed that he was regretting something.
“Scaevola,” Cassian called, grinning in calculation, “since you have proposed it, I say you launch the request for audience with the Caesar.”
The Goth hesitated for another lightning strike. With no words, he stood. He quickly saluted to Cassian with a bow of the head. He left the courtyard, silent.
What had gotten into him?
Naevius again scratched his jaw. “Hopefully he’s getting on that,” he said, back to his soft voice.
Aquilus said nothing. He felt his father’s eyes on him. He covered his discomfort with a dry cough.
“Aquilus Aurelius,” Thracius spoke up. His voice was like thunder rolling, yet soft as a breeze. Seemed fitting, coming after the lightning of Scaevola. “Is that correct?”
Cassian reached over and patted Aquilus’ shoulder. “My only son,” he puffed up with pride. “Took after his mother. He’s getting peaceful on me.” A hearty laugh followed and he bent over himself, like Eiran did.
Thracius didn’t take notice of him. “Golden eagle,” he said. “Your name. It means ‘golden eagle’.”
Aquilus slowly nodded. “Yes, Your Excellency.”
“The sign of our Eternal Empire.”
“Yes, I am aware, Your Excellency.”
He was silent again, still staring. Aquilus had to resist the urge to lower his head, like that of a slave. He braved the glare and stared back, with an easy smile on his face.
Death stares a man in the face. All a man can do is smile back.*
Wise words. Aquilus used them.
Thracius grunted. “I see good things from you, Aquilus Aurelius,” he announced. He stood and the company followed suit. “We shall take measures to learn of these Christians and take action.” He nodded to Cassian, who bowed. “I take my leave.”
“Semper Roma, /forever Rome/” saluted Pompeius and Naevius. Aquilus quietly repeated it.
Scaevola: (SHAY-voh-lah) ; Ahenobarbus (uh-HEN-oh-bar-bus) ; Thracius (THRAY-shus) ; Naevius (NAY-vee-us) ; Pompeius (pohm-PAY-us) ; Cassian (CASH-en)