“Is the meat almost done?” the young man called into the kitchen, doing his best to remember that he was home and not in the field.
“I only have two hands, Cartaphilis,” came the flippant reply.
He choked back a sharp rebuke. You’re home. You’re home and it’s a holiday, he reminded himself. His mother had scolded him lightly just this morning when one of the servants used his given name this morning and he’d shouted.
“It’s Saturnalia, my love,” Aquilla had chided softly. “You know during the revels a servant may use your name, even talk back without fear of retribution. Besides, darling, these people raised you with us. They remember the little boy who grew up here, not this hard and handsome soldier you’ve become.”
He’d nodded grudgingly, and then accepted his father’s suggestion that in the festive spirit of the holiday, he should see to the servants, reacquaint himself with them, and give his mother a day of rest and wine while he led the brigade of servants to complete the feast. Spirit of the holiday. That stunk like the stables, as far as Cartiphilis was concerned. Exactly like horseshit. A great lot of it, too.
“Why so glum, son?” his father teased as he entered the room. “Did Ophelia cancel?”
He just frowned in response. “How does Mother do this every day? She makes it all look so easy, so effortless. I lead men into battle. Why is this so difficult?”
His father gave a rich laugh. “I’m sure building an encampment is much more difficult that putting together a little dinner party.”
“Not hardly,” he groused. “In the field, my word is law.” His shoulders squared unconsciously.
His father nearly smiled at that. His son had always been a rather bookish child, much more interested in study than anything else, and he’d often been chastised for slouching at the table, forgetting to eat, and reading some scroll or map until it was burned into his brain. Now, the studious slender boy had transformed into a solid, competent man of action. “As it is here in this house, my boy,” he said with humor. “The servants are doing your bidding in preparing the meal. I could smell it in the courtyard.”
“I would never tolerate the insolence, the familiar language, much less the laziness I’ve endured from the help in this house, both free and bound, this day, Father.”
His father chuckled. “The beauty of Saturnalia, son, apart from the obvious honor we pay our gods in hopes they will see to our empire’s continued increase in all things, is that it’s meant to remind us all, and especially the powerful to keep some humility, and to respect those who serve them.”
“I’m sorry, Father,” Cartaphilis said with a wry smirk. “I must have missed that with all the drunken debauchery going on.”
“Be sour if you must, now, but get it out of your system. Tonight, we celebrate! My son has come home. Alive!”
Cartaphilis accepted his father’s warm embrace. He smiled when he thought of his family’s faces when he’d come through the door, not too long ago. The Legion had not been his father’s first choice, or his last, for that matter.
His father wanted his only son to work for him, if not in the mercantile trade where most of their money came from, then on the estate. Make wine, boy, he’d said. You like wine, don’t you? Or perhaps grow crops. Maybe in due time, enter politics. And most certainly take the lovely Ophelia for a wife and have as many fat babies as you can afford servants to chase after them.
This night was, to Maximus, at least, a night to celebrate his wayward son’s return, his exit from service, and perhaps turn him toward worthier pursuits if he could. Cartaphilis sensed that’s what the evening’s meal would be about, directing him where the family decided he should go. And with an audience, no less. He wrestled with the choice before him; tell his father now or make his plans known tonight at dinner.
“Wait until you see Ophelia, my boy,” his father enthused, releasing him finally from the tight hug that had threatened to bruise them both.
“I can’t wait.” Cartaphilis managed a smile. He’d wait until tomorrow to bring it up. He didn’t want any clouds gathering over his reunion with Ophelia. Besides, he hadn’t yet committed. Perhaps when he saw her, he would really change his mind as his father hoped.
He cast a slightly desperate eye at the kitchen, thinking once again that battle plans were a nursery game compared to going anywhere near a kitchen. His father grinned. “Now, son, why don’t you go get ready for this evening? I’ll see to all this.” He tipped his chin at the kitchen and gave his son a wink.
Cartaphilis smiled warmly. “Thank you, Father.”
Cartiphilis, Maximus, and Aquilla greeted their guests in the atrium and his younger sisters Julia and Lucia showed them to their seats in the triclinium. The early part of the evening would be marked by a feast, some long toasts, and offerings and libations to Saturn, from whom the feast derived its name.
Cartaphilis was happy enough for a good meal and some of his father’s best wine, but what really interested him this night was to see her again. His breath caught when he saw Ophelia. Always a pretty girl, she had become a startlingly beautiful young woman. Three years had passed and with every one of them, he was sure she had become ten times as lovely as the one before.
His mother thought that for all of the evidence that the Legion had turned him into a man of the world, his smile was almost shy when he said, “Ophelia … It has been too long.”
Seeming older and somehow more experienced than Cartaphilis for a moment, Ophelia gave a small, sweet smile and half-lidded her eyes. “Whose fault is that?” she returned playfully.
“The fault is mine, dear lady. But this humble soldier begs your pardon,” he said, with a deep, formal bow.
This sturdy soldier found himself nearly knocked over by the enthusiastic embrace of this once slender girl, who was now a tangle of graceful limbs locked around him, pressing soft curves that told him she was a girl no more against his chest.
“Welcome home, Phils!” was spoken in her soft husky voice next to his ear, but not so softly that the rest of the gathering couldn’t hear that she’d used her nickname for him publicly.
He felt himself blush and could hear his sisters giggling, even as her father, Pullo, cleared his throat rather loudly. His embarrassment didn’t stop him from replying, although he did so in a whisper meant only for her. “It is good to be home, now that you are in it, Lia.”
She reluctantly released him and smoothed her palla. The lovely overwrap had been a gift from her mother for the evening, especially dyed at her request a deep emerald that set off her unusual green eyes. She wanted to remind her Phils that the Legion might have wonderous adventures to offer, but there were reasons to stay on this side of the Tiber, too.
She brushed his fingers with hers, making him forget what a brazen gesture it was in such mixed company, and he smiled as she was let to her seat, running one hand through his short-cropped hair.
Pullo stepped in front of Cartaphilis, drawing himself up as imposingly as ever he had. “If I may have a word with you Cartaphilis?” he said, almost managing to make it sound like a request.
“Of course, sir,” he replied, with a respectful nod.
Knowing the sorts of conversations the father of a young lady must have with her suitor, no matter how long their families had known one another, Maximus offered, “I’ll just leave you then.”
“No, Maximus, please,” his old friend said. “Join us.” He paused. “I have a sense that my words will interest you both,” Pullo insisted.
They excused themselves out to walk in the peristyle, away from the quite obviously prying eyes and ears of gathering, particularly the women at the table. A pair of green eyes followed them closely as they exited to the garden area. Cartaphilis tipped Ophelia a smile. They had waited much too long to make this official, he thought. Perhaps tonight would be the night.
Pullo’s serious expression seemed out of place with the music, and dancing, and shouts of joy that could be heard from the streets beyond the walls of the stately villa in the hills at the heart of the district where many merchants made their home. “Now, Cartaphilis, I know that you and my daughter intend for a future together, even absent the plans you father and I made for you long ago.” Pullo paused.
Cartaphilis’s shy smile from earlier found it’s way back onto his lips. “Yes, sir. What started as a betrothal became much more … to both of us, I hope. I would … that is … Ophelia is a woman of whom no man in Rome could truly consider himself worthy. But I have always love … I would make her a good husband, sir. With your blessing, of course, sir,” he finished, feeling more like a boy than he had in many years.
“Well, young man, at one time I would have been most pleased to call you ‘son’, but recent news makes my blessing something I’m much less inclined to give.”
“Pullo,” Maximus hissed. “The betrothal was agreed upon years ago, and I know you disapprove of his time with the Legion but he is home now. This is not the time.”
“Old friend,” Pullo interrupted with the barest hint of apology. “This is exactly the time. You saw the two of them together. Ophelia is our life. I won’t have her heart, or her prospects, damaged now.”
Pullo gave them both a serious look, but as his eyes settled on Cartaphilis they became very hard. It was an expression the young man had never seen from his father’s dear friend before.
Pullo kept his eyes on Cartaphilis, even as he seemed to speak to Maximus. “Our young Phils has been less than honest about his intentions.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Maximus began. “My son …” his words died on his lips when he looked in his son’s eyes. “What is this about, son?”
Cartaphilis cursed himself for not anticipating this possibility. He knew Pullo did a great deal of business in Judea. And it was an important posting. Had news really traveled so fast?
Pullo broke the silence that seemed to stretch out as Cartaphilis’s brow creased. “It behooves me to know the comings and goings in Judea, boy. Particularly as it relates to Rome’s interests there, given the need for men like myself to manage the political and economic climate.”
He waited for Cartaphilis to say something, but the young man stared back, his jaw hardening.
Cartaphilis ground his teeth on the words that wanted to come out of his mouth. This man, this merchant, who served nothing but his own pocketbook was going to try to dictate to him the life he should lead, the life he would gladly share with Ophelia.
He had an urge for violence when his lady’s father said with cutting derision, “Our governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate, is about to get a brand new gate keeper.”
“It’s not like that!” Cartiphilis protested, sounding for a moment much younger than he was.
When he realized he’d just been goaded into speaking by Pullo, his voice cooled, and the professional soldier he had become took over.
“I have been offered a Command. Perimeter security. I would be leading an entire centuria. Leading a hundred men, defending your interests, I might add!”
Maximus’s voice rose more than a little. “What’s he saying Cartiphilis? You are done with the Legion. You are home! To stay!”
Cartaphilis barely registered the sound of his mother’s voice urging the servants to close the doors, “To keep out the night air,” and he tried to ignore her asking the servants to go fetch more wine and take up their instruments.
He’d always found the sound of the cithara grating. He preferred the simple music of the lyre, favored by their household slaves in his childhood. Tonight, the piercing piping and strumming made him grind his teeth, even drifting out here through closed doors.
Still, he drew on the patience of his scholarly pursuits, as well as the discipline he had learned as a Centurion. A deep measured breath was followed by a perfect rational explanation. “Look,” he began, opening his hands. “I haven’t said yay or nay to the offer. I don’t need to give an answer until after the revels.”
His father’s eyes flashed. He asked, much louder than was necessary out in the quiet, gently perfumed garden, “But you’re considering it?”
Before he could reply, Pullo piled on. “I cannot give you my blessing, give you my daughter, until you have officially, and unequivocally, rejected this offer.”
“Let me speak to Ophelia before I …”
“What, so you can convince her to run off to Judea with you? No!” Pullo’s voice did rise to a shout this time.
Cartaphilis lowered his, hoping to bring the discussion back to the reasonable. Decisions made through pure passion were never wise. “Sir, please … Be reasonable.”
Pullo glared at him. “I am being reasonable. My only daughter is not going to be a soldier’s wife, at least not wed to one with little chance of any real advancement.”
“Watch it now, Pullo,” Maximus interjected, feeling defensive of his son’s military career for perhaps the first time. “That’s my son you’re talking about. And he has more than proved himself,” he finished, a warning tone hardening his usually affable voice.
Pullo looked genuinely apologetic. “I mean no offense, Maximus. But …” he hesitated. But it needed to be said. “You just … you lack the resources to mount the necessary assault on the upper echelons here to support a serious military career.”
Maximus’s face reddened at the implication. Cartaphilis though, he thought he understood. He placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Father,” he began softly. “He’s right.”
His father’s eyes cut to his for a second and then dropped, not wanting to admit that understanding was beginning to dawn for him as well. Cartaphilis went on, “The military, especially now, under Tiberius, is extremely political.”
He paused, looking into both their faces with a gravity that bespoke years as yet unlived.
“The higher you rise, the more obligated you are. And … resources or no … That sort of toadying just doesn’t appeal to me. I … I am happy just to serve. To serve Rome. And I know you don’t see it. Either of you. But I believe in my truest, deepest, heart, that it is work worth doing.”
“I am sorry, Maximus,” Pullo said, much more sincerely this time. “I meant no offense. I took Cartaphilis’s enlistment as boyish hubris. I see that was not the case now. And yet, a choice is still what I must ask. Though his sincerity makes me regret it, at least a bit.”
“No need for apologies, Pullo. I wish I had known this was a question when I invited your family this evening. I would have rather settled it between my son and I before I included Ophelia.”
Pullo looked almost regretful, but not inclined to back down, as he asked, “So, young Cartaphilis, what will it be? A life here in Rome with your father’s blessing and my own, or hardship and loneliness in Judea?”
Maximus added, “Son, please, you’ve seen the known world. You’ve had your fun. It … It’s time to assume the mantle of a citizen rather than the yoke of a soldier.” When Cartaphilis didn’t answer right away, his father became impatient. “You’ve had your fun, boy! Do what is right!”
Cartaphilis swallowed hard. He felt closer to tears than he had when he’d lost his first friend in battle. A friend whose name was still on his lips after the worst of his dreams.
This was not fair. This choice. Why, oh Mars, why did a soldier have to choose between the love of his country and the love of his family? Why must man be forced to choose at all.
Then he took a calming breath.
“It was never … fun.” He kept himself from spitting the word. “I have served the Roman ideals, Father. The ideals you taught me, that Mother taught me, from so early I must still have been at the breast. What Rome offers … is better than what the wide world provides.”
He swallowed again.
“I have seen the good wrought by civilizing the savage lands at our borders, and I have also seen the price paid to defend the Empire from those who would tear it down. There are people … Father … My good Lord Pullo … there are people, uncountable masses who would destroy the very foundation of civilized culture … There are places where no one is lettered … Places where it is a crime to learn to read!” he finished hotly, as though that explained all of his sacrifices more fully than all of his other words.
“Calm down, son,” his father said, and Cartaphilis wanted to pull away from the warm hand on his arm, since it was accompanied by a tone that one would use with a crying child. “I’m just saying that while you may have some limited opportunity in the Legion … Our family can offer you more for your future here. It is time to come home, son.”
Sensing a slight wavering in Cartaphilis’s mind, Pullo added, “So what will that future hold, my boy; a life with Ophelia, or servitude to Rome?”
“Hey, you with me? I asked you a question.”
Cartaphilis snapped back into the moment. The smell of unwashed bodies, horse sweat, and dust filled his nostrils. This was the smell of home to him now.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“What was her name?” the wagon master repeated.
“The girl you’re pining over?”
Cartaphilis’s eyes hardened and his voice was sharper than he’d meant to allow. “You’d do better to hold your curiosity and your tongue!” he snapped. “I’m in no mood.”
“Sorry, sir. I just meant to pass the time … It gets lonely out here …”
Cartaphilis stopped listening and returned to his dark thoughts.
The conversation with Pullo and his father had not improved with the advancing hours. It had ended with him gathering his things and leaving. Without a word to the rest of the party.
He was trying not to regret not at least taking his leave of Ophelia. All he’d wanted since he’d first been told of their betrothal when he was a boy was to marry her, to have children with her … To make a life … A future that might give meaning to everything else.
It was just … Rome was his life, his love, as much … No. He hated to admit it, but more than she was, more than she could be. Cartaphilis wanted more than anything to be part of something bigger than himself. To somehow be worthy of … well, he wasn’t sure what exactly … But, to be worthy of something.
Leaving the Legion was never really an option. And Pullo was right. Ophelia wasn’t suited to be a soldier’s wife. She deserved better. Besides, he argued. What he and Ophelia had couldn’t be as real as it felt when she crushed herself against his chest. That was just the way men and women were taught to feel meant something important.
They had been apart for so long. They couldn’t possibly still feel the way they had stealing kisses in the portico all those years ago. It was a memory of feeling … And nothing more.
She’d be better off, he lied to himself. He’d said as much in the labored letters he’d tried to compose. “Rome needs me … I will always … You are too great a lady … Your family can provide such opportunity …”
In the end, he’d thrown them all away. He told himself that he accepted the sacrifice giving up her love, giving up the family she would have made with him, for the good of Rome.
He was even able to successfully tell himself that the tears he let fall once the dark had hidden his face were not for her, or the life and family he might have had.
Those tears, he told himself, were only for his family. His father had made things very clear. He had, by virtue of his decision, been cast out, disowned.
“If you leave this house, if you go to Judea, then I have no son. You will be dead to me. Never return. Do not write. Do not interfere with my mourning. If you leave, you no longer have a family and any future prospects you might have had at one of your own will leave you with my patronage.”
His father had seemed very sincere. However, he was the only son. And there was, surprisingly, always hope. You just had to look for it.
He might just find it in Judea, he thought.
“I guess we’ll see,” he murmured.
“Time heals all wounds.”
“I just need time.”
– End –