“By Jupiter, what had happened to Scaevola?” Pompeius huffed, moments later.
The breakfast party disbanded. Pompeius and Naevius left. Cassian stood.
Thracius narrowed his eyes on Aquilus.
Aquilus had never been under such agonizing scrutiny. Carefully he slid out of his seat, not looking up. As subdued as his own slaves, Aquilus, head down, followed the older heads of militia.
Where had Scaevola gone? Surely not to send the order this early.
Aquilus followed Naevius and Pompeius out of the courtyard and into the gardens. The Carthaginian and the Nicomedian broke off, discussing the crops and other mundane things, as any old friends, and the young legate was alone again, standing amidst paradise.
One could attain peace by taking in one breath of a Roman garden. Date trees soared overhead and sang in the wind, playing shadows over the rest of the villa. A fountain laughed in the middle of the square lawn, connected by four cobblestone paths. Succulent plants added scents to the air.
Aquilus sighed out and sat on the lip of the fountain. He rubbed his shoulder slightly. He hadn’t been sleeping well and his neck suffered. Bit acute, really- perhaps he should see Stylianos.
“That’s not what I meant.”
Aquilus turned at the Vesus accent. There was the pale face of the captain, contorted with anger. The legate shot to his feet, eyes wide. “Scaevola,” he exclaimed, “I was trying to help you. You seemed desperate.”
Scaevola vigorously shook his head, his freckled cheeks bright red. “I wanted them to leave the Christians alone.” Odd thing to say from a Roman. Aquilus frowned. Scaevola let out a worried breath, staring square into the prince’s eyes. “This is crucial.”
“For what?” Aquilus had nothing to say. Might as well try to argue. “For whom?” His voice was sharp.
The Vesus was taller than the prince, yet his gravitas was much weaker. His eyes cried weakness behind a film of tears. Scaevola hung his head, his curls shifting on his crown.
“I don’t want to kill Christians,” he confessed.
Aquilus’ face changed. Of course he didn’t want to murder innocents either, but he knew Scaevola. He was not a Jew. Despite having been born of Vesi parents in Gothic land, the captain became a Roman at a young age and had submitted to the traditions of the Eternal Empire, as did his mother and father.
Why was he showing weakness now?
He seemed a child in this instant, helpless and in need of a change in situation. Aquilus slowly sat down again, inviting the Vesus to sit with him. Reluctantly, nearly cautious, Scaevola did so.
“You would say I’m weak,” the captain mumbled, looking away.
“That’s what the Prefect would say,” Aquilus said firmly, “not me.”
Scaevola’s brow furrowed and again he eyed Aquilus. “You’re different,” he said quietly. “Different than them.”
It had become a ‘we’ and a ‘them’? Since when? At first, Aquilus was going o defend himself, but then he thought.
Yes, he was not like his father or the Prefect. He was not as indifferent as Naevius, nor as sour as Pompeius. He was different. Scaevola had complimented him.
“Why not?” Aquilus asked. “Why do you not want to do your job?”
“Do you want to hear it?” Scaevola snapped. He stood. His angered hand dragged through his curls. “I’m a Christian!”
A pause. “What?”
The Vesus looked down at his hands for a moment. Slowly, he reached for the collar of his tunic, and he drew out a leather cord. On it was a simple adornment; a clay fish.
The sign of the Christians.
Aquilus’ eyes became wide. He abruptly stood. “You could be killed,” he hissed.
“And you’re not ordering it,” Scaevola countered, brow raised and arms crossed.
The legate shook his head. “I, too, have my secrets,” he mumbled. “Scaevola, you know the risk.”
“I can’t deny my faith, either,” protested the captain. “I know what I believe and I know it to be truth.”
“Jesus of Nazareth was a good man, just a little sick in the head,” Aquilus pleaded. “Please, don’t do something you’ll regret.”
“Christ died for you, too,” Scaevola exclaimed. “I’m not going to be the one who had denied him on Judgement Day.”
He took in a deep breath, then let it out. “Aquilus, you seem to be a good man. I beg you not to expose me.”
The legate crossed his arms over his chest and sighed out through his nose. He closed his eyes. He would regret this.
“I won’t expose you,” he said, “as long as you give the orders to search for the Christians to someone else.”
Scaevola frowned. “So I should leave the persecution to someone else?”
“It’s what the Prefect wants,” Aquilus shrugged. “I personally don’t want to kill the Christians either, but I’d rather not get on Thracius’ bad side.” He paused. “That is, if he had a good side to begin with.”
The captain shook his head. “I can’t kill my brethren,” he argued.
“What shall happen, then?” exclaimed Aquilus, his hands thrown up in frustrated panic. Scaevola was a good man; he would regret exposing him greatly. “Will you risk everything - your own life - by disobeying orders?”
“Risking my life for everyone else is easy,” Scaevola said with a small smile.
Aquilus’ brow furrowed. The captain was smiling at him in these moments? He seemed to be so at peace with the thought of being killed. As if it wouldn’t hurt him.
Time seemed to stand still as Aquilus inspected the man. He was confused beyond comprehension.
Shall a man be so convicted in what he believed to be true, that he risked his reputation, career, and even life, for such a faith? The Jews were not to be killed by the Romans and were protected by law, so they were safe from certain persecution so long as they followed the law of the people. The Christians had no rights. They had no lives among the people. They were a different story.
“I don’t want to be exposed yet,” begged Scaevola. “There has to be something I can do to change people’s minds.”
Aquilus frowned. “You’re a captain among prefects,” he hissed.
“You’re a legate among prefects,” replied Scaevola.
The prince’s eyes disappeared under a brow for a flash of a moment, then bulged in angered surprise. “You’re implying that I will defend you?” Aquilus let out a scoff, tilting his head back. “I only said I would not expose you. The rest is all your doing.”
Scaevola looked down at his feet. “Then I shall refuse them outright,” he said quietly.
“If you shall,” Aquilus snapped, “I will not stop you.”
The expression on the captain’s face made the legate lean back, guilty. Scaevola had never been a friend, but he was a good man to trust. Here and now, he had broken trust with this captain, and it was apparent in his large, pale eyes.
Scaevola let out a sigh. “Goodbye, Legate.” He saluted and bowed low. Without any words, he turned and disappeared from the garden.
The sounds of the water and birds singing in the trees did not return the peace to the scene. Aquilus’ heart thudded in his chest as he weakly seated himself at the lip of the fountain.
“Elohim, My Lord,” he whispered, pointing his gaze heavenward, “did I just kill this man?”
This chapter is quicker paced than I'd like, but this is as true to the essence of the chapter as I could get it without putting in the boring details. It took quite a bit of editing, and I took out a lot for the sake of keeping it the conversation of Christianity.