Aquilus opened his eyes to silence.
Silence. Perhaps he was still dreaming of a better life, then. His mind had been screaming all night that it seemed a hallucination to his ears.
He moaned slightly. He didn’t remember much after the cheers roared louder than the wolves howling. He didn’t remember riding home, and he certainly didn’t remember how he was now in bed. The prince propped himself up with an elbow and was met with the face.
The face of his father.
Aquilus swallowed. “Pater,” he muttered. His eyes, once locked with those of his father, didn’t look away nor blink. He was met with an unrelenting force, and he had to be even more unrelenting.
Cassian was not at all in good nature.
It was all apparent in his visage, his anger- that usual flush of wine had darkened into something of a demon, and his otherwise light Italian eyes were blacker than a Carthaginian’s. His gaze was that of a wolf’s; poised and not daring to look away. Aquilus’ primal instincts were to stare back, with a level of animosity within him. The poison didn’t do well in his chest, however, and he looked down. He was rather dizzy, all of a sudden… Perhaps his father would leave him to rest. He laid back a little to give him the hint and closed his eyes.
He didn’t have it in him to speak to his father, though he didn’t know just why his father was angry, and just why he felt the need to prolong a certain suffering.
It was much better to face it, he supposed.
“What is it now, Pater?” he heaved out in a heavy, hard-handed sigh. Just the sigh his father would give his mother when she was upset about something.
By Jupiter, I’m turning into my father.
Cassian hefted himself up to stand and gazed down at his son - who after an inspection was diagnosed with a sudden fever - with an expression of a disapproving god. The tall, muscular, handsome Italian - purely bred and sculpted from the homeland - was no longer a man of reasonable nature. His smile seemed to be as dead as Thracius’ happiness.
“Who are you?” His voice was low and soft- not a gentle sort, but more like the gravelly whistle of an oncoming storm - but sharp as a newly honed gladius.
Aquilus squinted open his eyes and frowned up at his father. “Are you at a loss?” he mumbled. “I’m your son, Aurelius Cassian.”
The legate briefly shook his head and halted the sick man with a meandering gesture. “No,” he muttered, seeming more unsure. “No, you’re not my son.” He turned away slowly and paced the length of the room once, then brought his eyes back up to Aquilus, who, at this point, in his sudden confusion, sat up. “My Aetius Aquilus Aurelius is of Roman breed, Roman custom. He was born, named, and presented in all my ways, and yet, as I see, my Aquilus has become a new character.” He leveled his eyes on the prince, who pulled his linen on over his tunic. The gaze became sharp and stung Aquilus’ chest.
The air had suddenly turned cold, the prince observed, as he slowly strapped on his sandals. He did so carefully, as though his father was a lion crouched in a waiting attack.
Cassian went on. “This man before me has a sentiment towards the Christians.” He paused for a beat, then opened his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I didn’t raise my Aquilus for a woman’s sentiment. I raised him to take over my status and my villa, to take the role I couldn’t achieve. I raised him to be a soldier, perhaps a praetor, or even the Caesar. I raised my Aquilus to be more than a sympathizer.”
Aquilus frowned softly once more. “What happened to make you think otherwise?” he asked.
Cassian was weary. No doubt he had been awake all of last night. He slowly sat on the reclining sofa across from his son’s bed. “You weren’t strong enough for the executions,” he said with a sigh. “You were in some trance and fell in the stairway. You were unconscious and bleeding. That didn’t give you away, but you mumbled many things as we got you back home.”
Aquilus’ head whipped up, his curly locks bouncing above him. His golden eyes bulged and his heart thudded within him.
Cassian cocked his head to the side, scrutinizing the man before him. The signs were obvious enough; Aquilus knew of what he was alluding.
“You knew Scaevola was a Christian,” he hissed. “And you told us nothing.”
“What of it?” Aquilus stood up straight and approached his father. “You knew that Mother was a Jew and said nothing of it in the wedding ceremony. I may know something and refuse to say it.”
“I failed to mention your mother was a Jew because I loved her,” Cassian dared. His face was not more than an inch from his son’s. “You, on the other hand, have no explanation.”
Aquilus knew his father. He wanted him to relent, to back down as far as he could go. There was only pure Roman heart in Cassian; the milk of Lupa ran in his veins, which pumped wolf blood through him. This was the contrast between them; Aquilus lived on the honey of Canaan, a supplement far less aggressive.
He pursed his lips and wordlessly lowered his head, his brow thick over troubled eyes.
Cassian’s forehead creased with a pleasant expression of superiority. After a short pause, he crossed his arms over his chest and allowed a long sigh out of his nose.
“What have you to tell me?” he asked harshly. “Are you a Christian?”
“No,” Aquilus quickly replied, shaking his head so hard his curls bounced. “No, never.”
“Do you support them?” he was interrogated further.
Aquilus opened his hands in wonderment. “What have you against them?” he shot back.
Cassian cocked his head slightly, his gaze calculating. He squinted.
“If you are at all a Roman,” he growled, “you would do well to fear them. They speak of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. They call their Jesus the Kyrios, the Dominus. These usurpers are rather vague about it, but the gods know when they will begin to apply this to us.
“If their Jesus is their dominus, then they don’t believe in the caesar’s reign. If they don’t believe in it, they will not follow. If they don’t follow, they fight.”
“You’re so sure this will happen,” Aquilus wondered out loud, his eyes dragging their gaze back up to Cassian.
Cassian huffed. “You’re too indifferent,” he bewailed softly. “I don’t understand where this came from. As a Roman - as a legate - it’s your duty to have a business in this. As a Palestinian, you should know the dangers of the Christians. As a-” He suddenly stopped. He had been pacing again, and currently, he seemed as though Medusa had turned him to stone.
Aquilus knew then to hang on his next words.
As he melted back into a human, the expression of horror on Cassian’s face was worse than hearing of his discovery.
God, no, no, no!
A worried mother rushed in, her eyes filled with desperation. Her veil whipped to the opposite side of her face. “Cassian?”
The two men in the room refused to move; one out of anger, one of absolute fear. Aquilus watched his father carefully, observing the bulging vein in his neck as he turned to his wife. He said nothing, but studied her.
Hadassah barely seemed to notice. She saw her son was awake and joy filled her face. She ran to him and embraced him to her.
“Oh, Aquilus,” she exclaimed, her breath taken from her. She rustled his hair and pulled away from him, inspecting his temple, where the wound was. “You mended quickly,” she admitted, then proceeded to kiss his head.
All the affection couldn’t bring a smile to his face, as his father had nothing but suspicion and potential hate in his eyes.
Hadassah, still framing her son’s cheeks, turned again to her husband. “I thought that something was-”
“What have you done to my son?” Cassian’s tone was extreme and demanding. His eyes darkened into complete black.
A Jewish woman could not be intimidated. At least, not Hadassah. She batted one eye at the interruption, then frowned indignantly. “Do you mean our son?” she sharply corrected.
Before Aquilus knew what happened, Cassian was upon her. He struck her down with a hard hand. Hadassah, in a scream of pain and surprise, fell away from her son onto the floor. She hit the tile in an extreme motion, her hair flying from underneath her veil.
Aquilus’ rage grew inside. His eyes darkened immediately. Without another thought, he flung a fist into his father’s jaw.
“Stop!” shrieked Hadassah. She held her cheek in her hand, witnessing her son allow his emotion to betray him.
Cassian didn’t stagger. It was almost as though he didn’t notice Aquilus anymore. His attention returned to his wife, his face red as his cape.
“Did you make a Jew out of my son?” he roared.
“Pater, stop,” Aquilus pleaded. His mother shook her head at him, forbidding him to come between them. She would receive her husband’s punishment, whether or not she deserved it.
“Did you?” Cassian screamed at her.
Hadassah flinched submissively at his voice, shutting her eyes tight. “Yes!”
Aquilus exclaimed. “Mater, that’s what he wants you to say!”
“There is no shame in being one of God’s People,” she countered firmly. With confidence, she gazed up at her husband. “I have raised him a Jew,” she confessed, with no fear. “He is Reuben ben-Hadassah, a man of God, and I am proud of what I have done.”
The moment of silence was not to be cherished. Aquilus wanted with all his heart for Cassian to leave them in pride, so he could stay with his mother, drawing from her the courage he needed. He had to be strengthened, and he could see all the serenity and the confidence he lacked within Hadassah’s eyes.
The pause was abruptly ended. Cassian’s fists shook at his sides as a roar boiled out of his lungs and into his throat. He snatched his wife up from the floor by the arm and flung her again across the room. She hit the floor again with a pained grunt, but nothing more.
“Aquilus is mine!” he screamed. He stormed over to where she was sprawled, raising a hand for another strike.
Aquilus could no longer stand idly by. He ducked in between them and blocked his father’s hand, grabbing his wrist. The Roman blood within him pulsed into his movement. At that moment, the wolf came out of him.
“Don’t touch her,” his demand came out like a growl, gravelly and harsh as a storm. He couldn’t take his eyes from his father’s should he falter. “Don’t ever touch her again!”
Cassian was surprised only for an instant. “You have betrayed my name,” he hollered. “You can’t be a Jew!”
“Stop, please!” Hadassah sobbed, barely supporting herself. She screamed.
Aquilus glanced down, his eyes wide. His father was drawing his gladius, its tip gleaming, displaying its newly sharpened edges.
So it had come to this. He would bear it as he was meant to.
The door opened again, this time timidly. Flavia’s eyes showed themselves cast down to the floor, shyly wondering what was the matter. “Is everything-” As her eyes glanced upwards, she halted her words in horror. “Aquilus!”
The prince still struggled against his father’s strength, his eyes shifting to his wife. His eyes bulged.
“Flavia, get out of here!” he cried.
His father retracted his blade only to again swing at him. Aquilus shut his eyes tight, unable to watch his own death.
Flavia screamed in pain.
His wife crumbled into his arms, gasping in absolute surprise and agony. Aquilus hugged her to him. He didn’t understand what had happened until Cassian, eyes wide in shock, backed away, dropping his gladius.
He had stricken Flavia instead of Aquilus.
“No,” the prince breathed. He cradled his wife’s curls under his chin, his arm around her. She was shivering. Her dress was stained red on her side, where she had run between him and Cassian. “No, no, no! Flavia!”
She was unable to respond. Aquilus rested her head on his shoulder, rocking her like a child. Her breath came and went hushed and weak, just barely audible to him.
How could she do such a thing for him…
The commander looked down at his own hands. He himself was shaking, his skin pale. He glanced back up at the dying woman, as if piecing together that it was his fault. The anger was gone, leaving behind the regret that stood apparent all over him. A wave of reality overtook him, bending his knees until he collapsed onto the floor, barely holding himself through heaving sobs. “I’m a horrid man,” he bewailed. “Oh, Juno, forgive me!”
Aquilus couldn’t look at him. Flavia’s breathing on his neck slowed… it was no longer there. His fingers dug into her curls, his eyes stinging.
His beloved had been taken from him.
He wanted to know what he did to deserve it.
Aquilus opened his eyes to silence.