“This is good news,” Cassian exclaimed, rubbing his hands together.
The man was slow to age, with thick silver hair and a muscular build. He had height on his side as well, being just barely taller than Aquilus, who trudged behind him. Cassian’s angled face was blemished only by the flushed color of wine and very few creases.
Aquilus was not as excited as his father. His wife’s news hung heavy upon his squared shoulders, and he did not get to sleep last night. Besides, it was clear to him that his attempt to do Scaevola a favor did not leave him pleased at the table. The Goth hadn’t left the villa and his brief run-in with him was not grateful.
The two, followed slowly by slaves fanning them with ostrich-feather canopies, took their walk through the pillared outdoor halls. Doors led to the countless rooms to one side, and to the other, a lush garden grew in mazes, surrounding a haven of shining paving stones. Fountains glittered with the bright sun, laughing quietly. Every few steps, the utopia disappeared behind a pillar.
“Aquilus, did you not hear me?” Cassian frowned and captured his son by the shoulders. “Prefect Thracius is impressed by you. The gods know how quickly he will give you a promotion.”
The prince sighed and rubbed his eyes. “All right,” he conceded absently. “Why?”
“Why?” Cassian sputtered out his disbelief. “He finds you intelligent. That’s beyond good for you.” He grinned widely. “My son,” he breathed, “a prefect. Perhaps the Caesar, perhaps the Emperor!”
Aquilus smiled for his father’s sake. He ached inside. Because of the news weighing secretly upon him, something within him deflated. He didn’t carry himself as high and proud as he did about a month before, in camp. He was thinking too much.
Cassian’s face flickered. “Son?” he asked, hushed. Mellow did not fit him well. The legate was not a quiet man.
Aquilus shook his head, doing his best to resemble a happier man. “I’m fine,” he concluded, “just exhausted. My journey back was eventful.”
Cassian nodded. He patted his shoulder. “Good man.” He turned to leave. “Expect a most advantageous offer from the prefect within his stay.”
Aquilus sighed out and closed his eyes.
His father was detached from sympathy. It was better if he did not tell him. The man would not even be moved to pity. The most he could hope for would be for him to say to bring it to his mother.
Then he would do something unthinkable to Flavia.
‘A barren woman does not deserve a man’, he had said before Aquilus married her. He would force some repudiation or something of the aberrant sort. He wanted nothing but an heir, a strong son of his son. Nothing mattered more to him. Nothing would quell that need.
Aquilus felt as though he failed his father in that sense. As he watched the legate walk away, his white robe loosely following, he crossed his arms sadly. The prince was shattered to pieces knowing he would never be a father. But that wasn’t Flavia’s fault.
Stop finding yourself about to blame God!
He sighed deeply through his nose, as his slave continued to fan him. The day was warm beyond comfort and reason, with a hint of moisture in the air. He felt hot and sweaty already, despite having bathed that morning.
I know, he thought, I’ll visit Eiran.
Eiran had completely moved out of the villa. The meeting he had with the Sanhedrin proved stellar, and his training had begun. It seemed so final, having Eiran away. No more days filled to the brim with him. At least he now had duties; Aquilus felt useless without a mission. How purposeful his friend must have felt as he tended to the Temple.
Aquilus drew the veil over his curly hair and reverently entered.
No Flavia. No unborn children. No Thracius.
Absolutely no Father.
His mother smiled and caressed his shoulder. “You are so handsome, my son,” she remarked, not unlike herself. Whenever she saw her son, her face lit up, unable to hide her pride.
Aquilus softly smiled. On their way, he had told her of Flavia’s news. Hadassah seemed to have already known. Her smile melted and she was sombered.
But in the Temple, their sorrow slipped into petition.
Guarded by conical-helmeted soldiers the doors stood before them, sentinels to the Sacred Ground. Prayers soared and ebbed in lilting waves, crashing upon the walls of the holy temple. The bleats of goats and the lowing of steer added to the reverent chaos of the day. Blessings rose like incense.
The prince grinned at the voice and, halting, turned. Eiran had not shaved. Every inch becoming a priest, now clothed in the long robes of a holy man instead of the tunic of a slave. His young face was childlike, as if it had been forever since he had seen his friend.
The two ran to meet halfway in a hearty embrace.
“I needed to see you,” Aquilus said, relief apparent in his voice. “I can’t seem to go long without you.”
Eiran laughed as they parted, hands on his friend’s shoulders. His smile hadn’t ebbed. “I was surprised at myself as well,” he replied. “I hardly went an hour without your company.”
After a pause, the two laughed again, taking each other close. Hadassah watched, grinning contentedly.
Those months without Eiran were months without the rain for her son. Now, showers poured into the chapped land of his soul. His spirit rejuvenated in the presence of this man. How precious, to have a friend who would never forsake him a day.
“Now,” Eiran quickly took in a breath and looked behind him, “let us find a place to speak.”
The two crossed the immense courtyard after equally excited greetings passed between the new priest and Hadassah. It was a fasting day for the Pharisees, so there were many flocking to the Temple. Eiran had paid his dues to the high priest, so he was free to be with his friend. By the look on his face, something was the matter. The former slave guided him to a hall of rooms, then led him into his.
It was a humble dwelling, with not much other than a sleeping mat and a window. Two benches invited them into company.
“What is on your mind?” Eiran frowned slightly. Aquilus looked distracted, not his usual vigilant, charismatic self. He was unguarded, vulnerable. His friend leaned in. “Did your father find out?” he whispered.
Aquilus shook his head and tiredly rubbed his face. “Eiran, my faith is strained.” Quickly he added, “strained, not broken.”
Eiran’s brow furrowed and his eyes gleamed in question. “What is going on, my friend?”
The months of holding in his shaken heart seeped through. As a dam would collapse after a trickle escapes, so did the tears.
Eiran immediately stood and urged Aquilus to confess. The Roman was ill, it seemed, bent over himself, whole body quivering. His fists tightened into balls of hail, as white as ice. He was angry. His face contorted in sorrow.
He was heartbroken.
“Aquilus,” the priest whispered gently, “is Flavia-”
“God has taken fatherhood from me,” the captain growled. Through his sobs, he looked up at the redheaded priest of the Temple. “I have ordered myself not to blame Him. I have punished myself for doing so. I can’t get it out of my head, though.” Again, his body betrayed him and he cried, like the days of their childhood, when he broke his wrist.
“Flavia can never have children, after finding out our first child died within her,” he finally clarified.
“Not only that, but my father expects me to get a promotion. My future superior is a pagan; he has no god but his duty. A duty against those who defy the Emperor. I don’t know why but I feel as though this Prefect Thracius knows who I am.
“And Eiran, I have ruined someone. Captain Scaevola, for whom I had done a favor, is a Christian. I tried to help him as much as my conscience allowed, but it all was ruined, and I believe him to do something rash and unexpected.”
Eiran swallowed. He was frozen. His green eyes burned with sadness.
He was such a dear friend to Flavia as well. His heart bled for both father and mother to the dead child. His anger told him it was an injustice; his heart told him it was God’s plan.
He had a mind to distinguish between them.
He laid a hand on the shaking shoulder and he sighed. “You will hate what I’m to say,” he muttered.
“I need something, Eiran,” Aquilus exclaimed, righting himself. “Tell me anything. I just need to hear your voice and some wisdom.”
Eiran hesitated. “I promise you won’t like it.”
“Just,” the prince brought up a sharp hand, as if to strike Eiran, his voice like a blade, “say something.”
The priest paused, astonished by the abrupt act. Something in Aquilus’ eyes was gone; they didn’t shine so easily. They were dark as he looked up to face him. Unforgiving.
“I was to say,” he began slowly, “that God works in ways we can’t comprehend. Sometimes we feel as though we suffer. Sometimes we feel as though God has turned away from us, has forgotten us. In those days, we oft forget nothing is forgotten under His watchful eye. For God is present in every moment, He can’t forget anything or anyone.
“God has taken fatherhood from you and motherhood from Flavia. Such acts are tests, Aquilus; tests of faith. Our Father intends to have you follow Him more closely, and if you are to forgive him for this, then you can do so.”
Aquilus slowly frowned. “I don’t know if I have the faith,” he muttered slightly. “Flavia never told me that she was with our child.”
“Perhaps she was going to,” proposed Eiran. “Look, no one is to blame. Trust is the key to overcoming your sorrow.”
The prince reluctantly nodded, a small look of slight disbelief in his eyes, however. “Eiran,” he announced, “you should have been born in the court of the Caesar.”
Eiran grimly smiled. “Humor hasn’t failed you, I see,” he said in a hushed, reverent manner.
Aquilus had become a new being in this month without him. No longer was he the man Eiran aspired to be; strong in mind, heart, and body. His soul was spotless then, his faith innocent as a lamb. This man before him was a fragile parody of Aquilus-Reuben.
Soon to be slaughtered.
Commotion arose on the outside. Eiran frowned and pointed his attention to the hallway. “What could be the excitement?” he wondered, as he stood and ducked his head out of his room.
Aquilus shrugged and the two left the dormitory, wary of what was to be revealed.
Reaching the courtyard, the rising noise that had called them out had turned to a riot. Guards of the Temple struggled to keep the worshippers from becoming violent as they faced the walls to the outside world. Aquilus had enough sense to believe these were not words of love or prayer being said.
Eiran, having his dues and responsibilities to the people within the Temple, left his side in a mellow panic. Aquilus descended the dais canopied by alabaster pillars and entered the screaming throngs.
“Mother,” he called, “Mother, where are you?”
It took a few moments without reply before a frightened hand shot out and grabbed him by the arm. He snapped his attention to her, and he stared into the face of his mother. Hadassah was wide-eyed, speechless.
“What happened?” he inquired, motioning to the screaming men, throwing fists in there air.
Hadassah pointed to the walls leading back into Palestine. “Had you not heard, Aquilus?” she whispered. “A Christian is to be executed this afternoon.”
Such a tumultuous time for Aquilus! Such a state would make a man lose his faith if he wasn't so well-grounded in it. Who do you think the Christian is...?