O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
"The Sick Rose" by William Blake
Love’s refuge offers a stark contrast to the dim corridors and stifling rooms usually found on Olympus, and even more stark when compared to the mayhem of the mortal realm below. As soon as I enter, the bright and airy rooms calm me. Littered with over-stuffed pillows and plush furniture, Ares’ dwelling provides a welcome retreat for visitors lucky enough to be welcomed there.
He’d designed the scented air to calm those who lingered within and the breeze that flowed through from the open windows contained a music made from instruments heard only in dreams. Soft as a whisper, and carried on the breeze, its sibilant tones were pleasing to the ear. The music didn’t induce drowsiness; instead, it evoked a heightened sensual awareness. Underneath everything was the slightest hint of the salty-musk of sex -- just enough to revive the memory of recent pleasure and make my cock stiffen in anticipation.
While I tried to make my own rooms as calming and pleasant as his, I didn’t have his touch. Luckily, Ares enjoyed my company. We were kindred souls, he and I, and he let me stay there whenever I felt a need. I felt such a need today.
“You’ve really got to do something about him,” I said as he kneaded my shoulders and tried to help me calm down.
“You’re that worried?”
“I’m not the only one. You haven’t seen him in action,” I replied, and shifted uncomfortably. The pleasant ache in my cock subsided as the memory of my dealings with Cupid resurfaced. “Even Artemis complained about his lack of tactics, his failure to protect his soldiers. Casualties are higher than ever before. At Pydna, we lost 20,000,” I said as I shivered at the immensity of his folly. “He’s always been a bit unbalanced, but now I swear he’s insane.”
Ares must have felt my shiver for he raised the room’s temperature and wrapped his arms more tightly around my shoulders. We were lying on soft pillows, taking refuge in each other’s company. Ares dimmed the lights and added the scent of gardenia to the room’s air to calm me, but even his skilled touch and the gentle atmosphere of the place couldn’t relieve my tension. He leaned down to kiss me and ran his hands over my chest and while I relaxed a bit, there was still a strong sense of stress in my body that even Love’s touch couldn’t remove.
“Just forget it for now, Hades,” he coaxed, his voice a caress in itself. “Lie back and let me massage you. You need to relax.”
“You don’t understand,” I protested, propping myself up on one elbow. “He’s fighting right now. He'll be arriving on my doorstep asking for help. Come -- let me show you.”
Ares followed me with reluctance, adjusting his stiff cock as he stood. I knew he wanted to make love, but I was preoccupied. He could sense it and relented, joining me at the viewing well to see what this was all about. I waved my hand and displayed an image of a battle on its liquid surface. We watched for a few seconds and, accustomed as I was to bloodshed, even I grimaced at what I saw. I motioned to Ares to take a closer look, and with great reluctance, he bent lower.
There on the surface of the well was the image of the god of war on the battlefield. Around him, the horrors of war were all too clear. The usually impenetrable phalanx had been broken, but not before the long spears of the front line soldiers impaled dozens of Roman legionnaires. Their bright red blood flowed from gaping mouths and around the punctures in their flesh.
The phalanx, as horrifying as it is, was no match for the Roman army. Cupid seemed unable or unwilling to prepare our soldiers or alter his battle plans to deal with the Roman's new approach. As a result, our soldiers became easy targets once the legionnaires breached our lines. Legionnaires hacked limbs off and splayed flesh wide as they pushed through the front lines. It was an unimaginable horror -- our strongest and best-armed infantrymen hewn down like so many stalks of corn.
“Don’t make me watch this,” Ares protested and closed his eyes. He kept his body turned slightly away and hugged himself as if in comfort.
I hated making him look, but he had to know. He stared at the well from under a frown and watched as an enemy soldier slashed at the war god, leaving a gash in his thigh. Blood poured from the open wound and the flesh split wide to reveal sinew and bone. Cupid merely stopped in his tracks for an instant, his teeth gritted against the pain. He glanced down at the wound for only the briefest second, but did nothing. Spreading those immense ebony wings, he moved on and cut down the offending mortal with a wide sweep of his sword arm.
“It’s like this every battle,” I said in a low voice. “It seems he’s deliberately trying to harm himself. He’s not incompetent,” I insisted. “I’ve watched him before. He’s an expert swordsman. Lately, he just lets them cut him up and then comes to me and makes me heal him.”
“You have been looking tired lately,” Ares replied and brushed an strand of hair from my forehead, “but you do this all the time. Why does it bother you so much now?”
“My proper role is to heal illness and repair serious injury,” I protested and pulled my long white cloak tightly around me, feeling a sudden chill. “I enjoy it. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to know I’ve given mortals more life, prevented their early death. But this,” I said and shuddered. “This is nothing more than butchery. Self-imposed butchery.”
Ares forced himself to look back at the image of Cupid displayed in his viewing well. The war god was dressed in light amour rather than that of the well-armed and protected hoplite soldier of the infantry. Usually, the god was so skilled a fighter he was impervious to injury, and while he could feel pain, he’d always avoided it. Now it seemed as if he’d deliberately made himself vulnerable.
Armed with only a short sword, with neither shield nor helmet, the god was open to every legionnaire in range. Blood and dirt matted his usually lustrous dark curls, and his skin was marked by dozens of wounds. There were large gaps in the plumage of his incredible wings where sword and axe had sliced through. A mortal would be dead from loss of blood alone and unable to move from the pain, but the god couldn’t be killed.
“I don’t understand,” I said as we watched. “He can feel the pain, so why isn’t he taking more care? It’s like he wants to feel it.”
Unable to take any more, Ares waved his hand over the well and the image dissolved.
"You're right," Ares replied. "It doesn’t make sense. Cupid's an accomplished swordsman -- an expert with every known mortal weapon. He handles them as if they were children's toys."
"You've watched him fight?" I asked, surprised that Ares had any interest in the god.
"I've watched him practice," he admitted and smiled slyly. "Only from a distance.”
I couldn't help but raise my eyebrows. Cupid just wasn't my idea of a match for the god of love. I never expected he might be interested in him. I squelched the small bit of jealousy I felt, and thought about Cupid. He usually avoided all but the smallest wounds when fighting. He was even more expert as a tactician, having a mind that was terrifying in its clarity. Now it was as if he was leaving himself and his mortals open to the worst the Romans could inflict.
“I can’t help him,” I said. “All I can do is keep healing those horrible wounds. What’s wrong with him is more a matter of the heart.”
“I haven’t had much luck with him there,” Ares replied as we returned to the silk pillows in a corner of the room. “He’s hard to match with anyone,” he said as he pulled me down. “He’s so single-minded -- almost mechanical in his love making. Few will take him as a lover.”
I had to agree -- I stayed as far away from him as I could, but lately he’d arrive in my rooms unannounced and demand that I heal his wounds.
“His aggression is just too much for all but the most experienced mortal,” Ares continued, recounting his own troubles with the war god as he stroked my chest. “Few stay long enough to discover if there’s more to him.”
“Well, I’m going to complain to Zeus if this doesn’t stop, and I’ll call you as a witness.”
“What’s Zeus going to do?” Ares asked, just the hint of protest to his voice and a pout on those full lips. I smiled and wanted to pull him to me, to kiss that pretty mouth. I knew he didn’t want to face to the foul-tempered king of the gods with this matter, but there was no option.
“I don’t know, but I’m fed up with it. I feel so...” I said, searching for the correct word, “sullied when he leaves me, after healing those hideous wounds. It takes all my energy just to recover. I don’t think gods should leave themselves vulnerable. It’s one thing to harm mortals, but it’s reckless and inconsiderate to let harm come to themselves. Why be gods otherwise? If he wants to feel pain, if he wants to be killed in battle, let him give up his godhood.”
Ares twirled a lock of his raven hair and raised his eyebrows as I finished my diatribe.
“I can’t imagine feeling pain,” he said in a soft voice. “Well, not the kind that truly hurts,” he added, slipping his hand underneath my tunic and pinching a nipple. He grinned when he heard my grunt and then kissed me but I wasn't finished -- I needed some sign of his resolve to help me.
“I want you to be there when he comes to me,” I insisted and pulled away. I didn’t want to impose on him, but was at my wit’s end. “ Maybe you can do something.”
“All right,” Ares said, impatience clear in his voice. He stroked my side and then slipped his hand around to my growing bulge. “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t promise anything. He’s never wanted any help from me.”
He pulled me closer and I sighed. Ares knew I needed his gentle touch as much as his help, and I responded to him, my cock filling once again and a pleasant ache replacing the dread from the images in the viewing well.
“Now lean back and let me give you that massage.”
I gave in to Ares’ demands and lay back with my head in his lap. He massaged my brow, and soon, I felt some of the tension in my body ease. After a moment, I opened my eyes and reached up, pulling one of Ares’ long tresses to bring his face closer. He bent down and kissed me again, his full lips parting and sucking on my bottom lip. I needed to lose myself in his passion to rid my mind of the image of the god of war.
Later in the day, I called Ares’ name and I felt his presence as he materialized in my rooms on Olympus. He remained in the corner, half-hidden behind a screen and said nothing.
The god of war lay on a table in the center of my room, oblivious to everything except his pain, his bloody body itself a battlefield. The scent of wet earth and old blood assaulted even my experienced nose so I knew how it must have affected Ares, used as he was to the pleasant atmosphere of his own rooms.
Bloody muck from the battle caked the war god’s hair and wings. Shudders wracked his body as he lay on the table, and although sweat covered him, his teeth chattered as if chilled. I knew he’d lost far too much blood and was in intense pain -- more pain that a mortal could tolerate.
Blood from missing digits smeared his ghostly-pale hands. They gripped the sides of the marble table, staining the fine white surface. I looked up at Ares from the war god’s body and shook my head as our eyes met. Ares edged closer as if afraid to focus on Cupid's body too clearly. I knew what he'd already seen would harm his sensibilities.
“Why are you doing this to yourself?” I asked Cupid, my voice cracking, edged with pain.
“Just shut up and fix me,” he whispered, pain choking his voice.
“If you were a mortal, you’d be dead. Honestly, I don’t understand why...”
“Just shut the fuck up, healer. Fix my fucking wounds!” Cupid groaned and convulsed from the effort it took to speak, his legs jerking as if in some kind of seizure. I stood with my hands suspended over his bloody body and hesitated. I just couldn’t decide where to start.
“Fix me!” Cupid hissed through gritted teeth.
Finally, I swallowed back the bile that rose in my throat and laid my hand over the war god’s brow. In a moment, Cupid’s body was still, his breathing no longer labored. I turned away and tried to catch my breath, feeling as though I’d had the wind knocked out of me from his pain. Touching him when he was conscious was almost unbearable.
“Look at him,” I said to Ares. “He’s a disgrace to the gods this way.”
Ares leaned against a wall and watched me as I did my work, my hands moving from wound to wound, smoothing the torn flesh, healing the bruises and repairing the broken bones. Now that Cupid was asleep, it was easier to withstand the feel of his torn body under my hands, but it still pained me. In fact, it broke my heart. As I pulled together the ragged edges of the last wound and returned his skin to a seamless whole, I had to fight back tears.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
Ares came to me and embraced me from behind, looking over my shoulder at the body on the table. Cupid’s skin was once again flawless, the blood and muck gone as I cleaned him and restored him to his incredible and fearsome beauty. Cupid’s dark hair was long and fell in soft waves around his face. The musculature, so well defined and covered by gleaming golden skin, was as I remembered.
Ares couldn’t resist and moved to the prone god’s side and ran a gentle hand over Cupid's bare chest, his fingers stopping to brush a rosy-brown nipple until it puckered. His hand trailed down the washboard stomach and lightly caressed the bulge pressing against the scant loincloth. He seemed unable to stop and stroked the shimmering black wings with reverence.
“He’s so beautiful.”
Ares bent down and examined the war god’s face, his fingers stroking the smooth brow and then tracing the shapely lips.
“He’s in pain,” Ares replied. “You’re right. It’s his heart.”
“Is he in love?”
“Yes, and no,” Ares replied and leaned even closer so that his lips were just a breath away from Cupid’s own sensuous mouth. He remained there as if breathing the other god’s breath and I was sure he would kiss Cupid’s mouth. Instead, he tilted his head and pressed his lips to the war god’s temple. “There’s someone. I can feel it, but it’s not only that causing him pain.” He took a deep breath as if reluctant to leave him and moved back to my side.
I brushed my hand over the war god’s forehead and lifted him from his deep slumber. Cupid sat up as if startled, and glowered when he saw the love god.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
Ares stepped back from the table as if struck and looked away, unwilling to meet the cold green eyes.
“Hades asked me to come. You’re upset about something, and he asked me to see if I could help.”
“I don’t need your fucking help.”
Cupid jumped off the table and arched his back, stretching like a cat after a long sleep. He spread each wing to its full length and ran his fingers through the iridescent black plumage. There seemed to be no enjoyment in his act, just a check to see if he was intact.
His image dissolved as he disappeared, leaving us alone.
“You see? He doesn’t care how I feel about this. He’s completely self-absorbed.”
“I’ll follow him later, see what I can find out,” Ares promised. “But he doesn’t want my help, so I won’t be welcome.”
“If you’ve no luck, let me know and I’ll go to Zeus. This can’t continue.”
We embraced and Ares let me lean on him, supporting my weight almost completely. He took us back to his rooms, to the pleasant sounds and scents of his refuge, and kissed away my pain.
The mortal realm is a crowded and filthy place, filled with buildings in all states of disrepair. Shops line the market street, and their dilapidated state is in stark contrast to the white-washed splendor of the many-columned temples where I usually visit. In the market, loud mouthed shopkeepers presiding over bins of fruits, vegetables hawk their wares. Beggars sit in small alcoves, their hands extended in hopes that those who passed by will throw them a coin. From just inside darkened doorways, prostitutes wink at men and raise their eyebrows suggestively. Here and there are crates filled with swine and fowl – their squawks and squeals grate on my nerves, especially since we’d just come from Ares’ rooms.
I rarely go to the public areas – the poverty is great, and there are too many old and ill there looking for money to feed themselves and their pitiful families. The filth disgusts me, and I can feel disease as I walk among them. It unsettles me – sensing impending death all around me and being unable to do much about it. When mortals come to my temple, when they pray and ask me to heal them, I reward their worship and comply – that I enjoy, but when I’m outside my temple, I only feel their illness, sense their pain.
We remained invisible so we could walk unseen among the mortals. The street was narrow and the stink of the place almost overwhelmed me, but it didn’t seem to bother Ares. He was smiling; his excitement clear from the flush to his cheeks.
“Why in Tartarus are we here?”
“Follow me,” he said and laughed. He seemed to enjoy being surrounded by mortals. I had no choice but to follow him since he grabbed my hand and pulled me along.
The small side street opened onto one of the main thoroughfares in Rome and at the end of the street was a building currently under renovation. Slaves and skilled workers alike put the finishing touches on the building’s new façade. A plaque on the front over the door informed us it was dedicated to Jupiter.
“Come in. See what I found.”
We entered the building and stepped carefully around piles of debris and tools. In the main offering room was a slave with his back to us. He was bent over a large table on which was laid an unfinished mosaic all in shades of blue.
The slave was unusual in appearance with hair of a color not often seen in this part of the world. I moved around to the other side of the table so I could get a better look at him. Copper waves framed his face and the heat and humidity stuck wet curls to his neck. He was wearing nothing but a light loincloth so I could see the whole of his glorious body, and it was glorious – his golden skin covered a very well-developed musculature.
Scars marked the surface of his skin and told of past battles, and there were fresh bruises and abrasions on his arms and thighs. When he looked up and stared off into the distance, as if to remember some vision necessary for his art, I looked directly into his amber-brown eyes. They were framed by long dark lashes fit more for a girl than a man. Full sensuous lips promised pleasures for those lucky enough to taste him. I could understand why Cupid wanted him.
“He’s a beauty.”
“Yes,” Ares replied absently. He was leaning on the table beside the slave so that his face was just inches away from the slave’s own.
“This is Cupid’s lover?” I asked and felt a small stab of jealousy at the way Ares looked at this mortal.
“No,” Ares replied and shook his head. “They’ve not been lovers yet, but this is the one Cupid wants.”
I could tell from the expression on Ares’ face that he, too, found this mortal breathtaking. Ares held up his hand as if to stop me and frowned for a moment. I felt it too – the impending arrival of another god.
Ares pulled me with him, and we re-materialized behind a pile of rubble in the adjoining room. We could still see into the room where the slave labored but could not easily be seen. I felt Cupid’s presence as he arrived – a slight wave in the ether, the prickle of electricity over my skin and the faint smell of burnt sandalwood announced his presence. Cupid stood a few steps away from the slave and watched him as he worked. He hadn’t detected us so we could remain in our hiding place and watch.
Cupid looked fearsome and the skin on my arms rose in goose flesh when I saw him. His arms were crossed and each hand gripped the opposite shoulder and those wings – they curled around his body as if in protection. From his vantage in the corner of the room, Cupid watched the slave from under a frown.
“He comes here everyday at this time, to watch,” Ares whispered, his face so close to mine that his curls brushed my cheek and his bulk warmed me from behind. There was a great deal of noise from the street and from the workmen in another room, hammering away at stone as they worked. They couldn’t hear us from the other room.
“He’s a slave?” I said in reply, turning my cheek just enough to feel Ares’ soft lips press against it, but not taking my eyes off the slave.
“Yes, from Greece, captured during the sack of Corinth.”
Cupid moved closer to the table where the slave worked and unfurled his wings. He wore his battledress – black leather tunic covered by a metal breastplate, thick black leather belt and his huge sword. As Cupid bent down, he examined the mosaic closely and ran a hand over the surface, sliding his fingers in the grooves between the designs. He seemed almost as interested in the piece of art the slave was creating as he was in the slave himself.
“He was an artist in Greece, one of the very best at the art of mosaics,” Ares said, his lips pressing against my ear, “but it was his skill as a fighter that brought him here.”
“He’s built well for an artist,” I noted, admiring his strong physique.
“Yes, such a delicious combination – so apparently at odds. Physical strength and artistic talent.”
In the other room, the war god walked around the mortal and looked him over. He stopped behind the slave and ran his hand down the mortal’s back, just above the skin’s surface, taking care not to touch him. The look on the war god’s face was one so full of blatant want, it made my heart ache.
“This slave,” Ares whispered, pressing his hard cock against my ass, “he fought in the battle when the Romans defeated Corinth and was so strong, he couldn’t be taken. He held the centurion at bay for hours.”
“I’m amazed he survived.”
“Yes, well, the Centurion was so impressed with his skill and fearlessness, he wanted to take the man captive and wouldn’t let the legionnaires kill him. Many died so that this one could be brought back to Rome to fight in the arena.”
“I wouldn’t have thought he’d be taken alive.”
“He wouldn’t have. His father died on the battlefield at his side. He was prepared to fight to the death, but the Centurion had some bait. The wife was taken captive and the Centurion offered to free her if the soldier agreed to turn himself over as a slave.”
“What’s his name?”
“Iphicles,” I replied, mouthing the name. “So he’s here in Rome, working as an artist?”
“Well, technically he’s being used as a gladiator and is only doing the mosaic because his new owners learned of his skills and wanted to make some extra money off him before his death They’re collaborating to keep Iphicles alive long enough so he can finish the mosaic. At night Iphicles fights, and his opponents are chosen so that he can’t fail but win – they’re clearly outmatched. When the mosaic is finished, though, Iphicles will go back to the arena and fight until he dies.”
“Tragic. He should be allowed to live, to do his art.”
“Yes, he’s very talented, but they can make more money off him in one season as a gladiator than in several as an artist.” Ares replied after a while. “He’s beautiful.”
In the other room, Cupid stood in the corner and folded his wings back around himself. In a moment, he vanished, leaving the mortal alone.
“He’s gone, probably to fight,” I said, feeling dread build in the pit of my stomach. “Who knows how many of our soldiers will die today?”
We moved back into the main room and took our places beside Iphicles as he worked.
“Why doesn’t he just take Iphicles as his lover?” I asked, exasperated. “He could intervene in some way, keep the mortal for himself.”
“I’m not sure,” Ares said and shrugged. “I don’t think he feels worthy.”
“Worthy?” I laughed. “He’s a god!”
“Well, whatever the reason, Cupid hasn’t made a move. He just comes here and watches him work. At night, he watches Iphicles fight, then he watches him sleep. That’s it.”
Ares nodded and continued to watch. The mortal worked on the mosaic, his movements methodical, choosing the stone chips with the proper hue of blue, laying them over the mortar, adding smaller chips of black to define the pattern. Sweat dripped on the stones beneath him as he worked, and he wiped it off with a rag. Ares slipped his hand down and caught some of the stray sweat onto a fingertip and tasted it. He closed his eyes and inhaled.
“I don’t think he’s ever been with a man before,” Ares said after a while as if reading the mortal from the taste of his sweat. He looked at me. “I’ve watched him – he’s refused every advance the other gladiators have made to him. I doubt if Cupid could seduce him even if he tried and I think Cupid realizes this. If anything, Cupid lacks subtlety as a lover, especially the kind you need to seduce a virgin.”
“Cupid’s over-reacting, don’t you think?” I said, feeling little sympathy for the war god. “I mean, I’ve been in love before – unrequited love at that,” I added, remembering the time before Ares and I became lovers. “But I didn’t kill off thousands of mortals and abuse myself as a result.”
“You’re more skilled,” Ares said with a coy smile. “You understand seduction. That eventually brought you the lover you desired.”
I flushed deeply at his remark, my cheeks hot with embarrassment. Ares had such keen knowledge of my heart – all our hearts. How could I keep anything from him?
“Still, why doesn’t the fool just make a move, do something?”
“The god of war afraid?” I smirked. Even though I felt bad for him, I couldn’t help but feel contempt. He was so amazing on the battlefield, so great at tactical war, but in love, he was a mere child.
“You’re not very generous, Hades,” Ares said quietly.
“It’s hard to be generous when he forces me to heal him.”
Ares nodded, but said nothing.
“What can we do?” I asked and sighed, feeling trapped.
“I don’t know. I’d try to teach him how to approach the mortal, but, well. We have this history...” he said and bit his bottom lip almost guiltily.
“History? You never told me you had a relationship with Cupid.”
“I don’t tell you everything.”
“You were lovers?” I demanded, hurt coloring my voice.
“No,” he replied. “He...pursued me. He wanted me, but I turned him down. He has no skill and didn’t seem willing to learn. I told him to come back some day when he was ready to learn the art of love.”
I grimaced. I’d have been crushed if Ares had turned me away when I first fell in love with him. We watched as Iphicles took a long drink of water from a metal cup and poured the remaining liquid over his head. He gasped as the cool water flowed over his face and neck. It dripped down his body, over the strong chest, and his nipples hardening from the chill. He shook his head and the water flew around and then he returned to his work, unaware of the sensualness of his actions and how they were affecting two voyeuristic gods watching him. Ares leaned in closer to the mortal and looked as if he would lick the sweat right off his bare skin. He pulled back at the last moment and turned to look at me, a smile on his lips.
“I doubt as if Cupid would accept my help even if I could show him just how to win this mortal’s love.”
“Well,” I replied, shifting uncomfortably as my stiffened cock pressed against my tunic. “You’ve got to do something. I don’t want this insanity of Cupid’s to continue.”
“I’m thinking, but I need to know more. And I’ll need your help.”
“I’ll do whatever you want.”
He came around the table and put his arms around me, pressing his cock against my hip, and smiled.
“Right now,” he breathed. “I want you.”
We left the beautiful Iphicles and returned to Ares’ rooms on Olympus. As Ares knelt down between my legs and took my aching cock between his lips, I closed my eyes and images of Cupid and Iphicles passed through my mind. When I cried out in pleasure, I’m not sure whose face it was I imagined there, between my legs, or whose lips were around my cock – Iphicles’ or Cupid’s.
There’d been no battle that day and I felt relieved that I’d not have to heal Cupid again, at least not today. When Ares materialized in my room later that night, he was excited and pulled me along with him off to the mortal realm, to a gala banquet held in honor of the gladiators who would risk their lives in the arena the next day.
“It’s a munera,” he told me. “A private event, and the organizers say it will be beyond anything that’s been seen in these parts for a year,” he said as we arrived at the large hall in the middle of Rome. Here, the editores, or sponsor of the games, would feed the gladiators in public so the adoring masses could watch them eat and place bets on their matches for the following day.
A long banquet table was at the front of the large room. The table was filled with foods of every kind, huge hanks of meat and game, fruit and vegetables, wine, and exotic dishes from other lands I couldn’t name. Facing the audience were the gladiators in all their splendor, and as I scanned their faces, I noted that they were as different in their comportment as they were in their style of battle. Some were obviously sick, afraid of what the next day would bring and ate nothing, while others ate, drank and laughed with each other as if they couldn’t be happier. The looks of admiration and pure lust from members of the audience were amusing. I could feel the sexual energy all around me. It stimulated Ares and he couldn’t help but slip his arm around me as we took a place towards the center of the room.
Iphicles was seated near one end of the table. He was quiet, his eyes lowered and he ate lightly, fruit and some small bit of bread. He neither looked scared nor did he look as if he was enjoying himself. He looked stoic, as if he’d accepted his fate and cared little about it one way or another.
Every now and then, a compatriot would lean over and say something to him, to which he’d smile and nod, and say little in response. No one seemed to mind that he didn’t take part in the fun, the ribald jokes made by some of the gladiators about the adoring women in the crowd. He looked dignified in contrast to their raucous behavior, in spite of his lowly status as a slave. I knew, of course, that he was a slave only by circumstance – that in his own land, he had some status as an artist and as the son of a wealthy landowner.
Ares and I sat in disguise amidst the crowd and tried to look inconspicuous in case Cupid appeared, but Ares was excited by the undercurrent of sex in the place. He kept leaning over and whispering in my ear, repeating what the mortals were saying, his hot breath teasing me.
“Listen to that one,” Ares said as he pointed out one attractive young man. “He says Cerenus is the best. Cerenus is a ‘retiarii’, a gladiator who fights with a net and trident. He’s had seven kills and is unbeatable.”
“You’re as excited by this as they are,” I grumbled.
“They love their gladiators.”
While their parents looked on in disapproval, the pretty young women giggled amongst themselves.
“The parents don’t like Cerenus,” Ares whispered into my ear. “He has a reputation as a “netter of young girls”. They think he’s sure bet regardless and have wagered heavily on him, no matter who he fights.
My focus was on Iphicles and Iphicles alone.
“Iphicles seems resigned.”
Ares nodded squeezed my arm. We both felt Cupid as he materialized – a slight tingle over our skin as he entered the room. There he stood, directly behind Iphicles, his magnificent wings spread out, beating softly for a moment and then folding behind him. He was invisible to everyone except us, so we alone knew of his presence in the room.
Cupid took an empty spot beside Iphicles and watched him in profile as he ate. It was tragic, the look on Cupid’s face. If Iphicles showed no fear or sadness for his plight, Cupid couldn’t hide his and I was shocked to see so much emotion in him. It made me cringe. In fact, the look on his face made my heart ache to see such pain, but at the same time, I felt contempt for him and his impotence.
“For Zeus’ sake,” I hissed, unable to keep the disgust out of my voice, “why doesn’t he just do something instead of moping around like a love-sick boy?”
“But he is a love-sick boy, Hades. What’s he going to do? Be realistic,” Ares admonished. “He can’t just force the issue – Iphicles isn’t likely to go along with it, or if he did, it would only be out of fear or awe. There’d be little pleasure for Cupid in just raping him. It’s the mortal’s love he wants. Cupid just can’t figure out how to get it and is afraid Iphicles will die before he finds out.”
“He’s a god,” I protested once again, unable to comprehend Cupid’s unwillingness to use his power. “Even I’ve used that fact for strategic advantage with a mortal. Not many mortals will argue with a god, especially not the god of war. Besides, Iphicles is a warrior as well as an artist. You’d think he’d be honored to be the god’s lover.”
Ares said nothing and pulled back from me for a moment. I turned to look at his face, but it was unreadable.
“Besides,” I added, poking him in the ribs. “He could ask for your help.”
“And admit he isn’t capable in anything and everything? Not Cupid. He’s too proud. No,” Ares said and sighed heavily. “He’ll just suffer in silence.”
“And by doing nothing, he assures his ultimate failure. What a fool.”
Ares frowned at me and we sat in silence for a while. I felt Ares’ disapproval fall on me like a heavy cloak. While I felt bad for Cupid, I also felt such incredible frustration that the god seemed unwilling to do something other than pine.
“I’m leaving,” I said after about a quarter of an hour of the same view – Iphicles picking at his food and Cupid sitting beside him with that look on his face. Ares grabbed my arm.
“Hades,” he said softly. “Please come back with me, watch him tonight when he goes to Iphicles’ room.”
“Why? So I can watch more of the same? No thanks.”
“Come with me!” Ares pleaded, squeezing my hand. “It’s very erotic.”
I hesitated. Something in the love god’s voice aroused me.
“He watches Iphicles when the mortal touches himself, pleasures himself. I want to fuck you while I watch them.”
I swallowed hard, and felt the blood rush to my cock. Turning, I looked into Ares’ warm brown eyes and felt lust surge in my belly. I’d seen so much love and lust in those eyes, felt so much pleasure in his body. How could I give up the chance to feel more?
“All right,” I said, feeling both resigned and breathless at the prospect.
“It’s so beautiful,” Ares said softly. He smiled a half-smile, one side of his mouth curving suggestively. “You’ll see.”
Ares returned to my rooms later that evening, just as the sun set and shrouded the mortal realm in darkness. I knew that on the earth below, mortals would be living their lives by torch and candlelight, their ability to socialize dependent on their ability to afford the fuel for lamps and wax for candles. We had no such limits on Olympus.
Ares pulled me excitedly to the viewing well and waved his hand over the surface. The image revealed the mortal in his small cell in the gladiator school where he lived. He shared it with another gladiator who was lying on a cot against the opposite wall, his back turned away. Snores betrayed his deep sleep.
The room was dim – there were no candles and my eyes fought to adjust to the light coming in from a small window. Ares amplified the image and soon we could see Iphicles as if there were a hundred candles lighting his room.
He was lying on the cot and was almost naked and was sweating in the heat of his cramped cell. Discomfort of some kind prevented his sleep, whether the heat or the snoring of his cell mate, I couldn’t tell, but he sighed heavily and moved around on the cot that was clearly too small for his bulk.
I examined his body – it was marvelous, and almost naked like this, he was even more desirable. My cock stiffened – this would be very enjoyable, this bit of voyeurism. Ares pressed against me from behind and watched the viewing well from over my shoulder. His hands slipped around my waist and fondled me and I heard a small chuckle when he gripped my thickening cock.
“Wait ‘till Cupid arrives,” he breathed in my ear. “He wants Iphicles so much.”
“He’s beautiful, but no mortal’s worth what Cupid’s putting himself through,” I protested weakly, feeling just a bit hypocritical. “Maybe for another god, but not a mortal. They’re born and die. Enjoy them if you like them. Cupid’s being ridiculous about this whole thing.”
“You’re such a romantic!” he chided and then squeezed me. In an instant, he made my clothes disappear and began running his hands all over me, and his touch and the view of the mortal lying in his small room combined to make me so incredibly hard. Ares gripped my cock and stroked it, milking me of my fluid and licking if off his fingers with a sigh.
“Watch him,” he whispered as he ran a finger down the crack of my ass, teasing me. “He’s frustrated. He needs to cum so he can sleep. Look at his cock – it’s already starting to rise. He fights it but he can’t stop nature.”
I looked, in fact, I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off the bulge under the thin loincloth. I would have had my hands on it by now if it’d been me, but the mortal seemed to fight touching himself. At that moment, Cupid appeared and materialized above the bed, his great wings flapping gently, keeping him suspended in the air. He was there but not really there – only Ares and I could see him.
“Look, there he is now,” Ares breathed, his voice catching in his throat from excitement. He waved his hand and expanded the image and pushed me down so that I was resting my arms on the small railing that circled the viewing well. Ares’ strong hands ran down my back and around my waist while his cock, thick and hot, pressed between the cheeks of my ass.
I spread my thighs to accommodate him. As if impatient, he poured some oil over me and stroked my crack, slipping a finger inside my body to prepare me for his penetration. As we watched the two in the viewing well, he stroked my cock with one hand, while he stretched my ass with the well-oiled fingers of the other. His practiced touch soon had me very near to orgasm.
“When he touches himself for the first time, I want to fuck you.”
Just then, the mortal untied his loincloth and pulled it aside. His hands stroked down his own body, over the well-developed pectorals and the fur-covered stomach, to his groin. He was amply endowed with a thick cock and deliciously heavy balls in a loose bag. I couldn’t help but imagine cupping them with my hand, feeling the silky softness of the sack against my lips, smelling the deep salty musk. When his hand finally gripped his cock, Ares pushed his cock deep inside me and groaned with pleasure.
I shuddered as he skillfully brushed the sensitive tissue inside of my body as he began to thrust. He stroked my cock with an expert hand and I was so close to cumming, I had to close my eyes.
As if he sensed my impending orgasm, Ares slowed the pace of his thrusts.
“I want you to cum when he does. Look, he’s still just touching himself lightly, teasing himself. What’s he imagining? What would excite him? The idea of a woman sucking him? The feel of her warm wet tongue on his cock? Or would he’d prefer a pair of young men? The feel of a mouth on his cock, while another licks his balls? Or something less conventional – the tightness of a leather tie around his cock or the kiss of a belt across his ass?”
Cupid moved closer to the mortal, and watched Iphicles, but never touched himself and I wondered why – why wouldn’t he touch himself? Cupid was aroused – the stiffness to his cock told the tale – but he wasn’t touching himself.
“Cupid just watches?” I asked as Ares thrust slowly in my ass.
“Yes,” Ares replied, his voice shaky with lust. “He’s a deep one. He likes to deny himself, hold off for as long as he can. He’ll go to the battlefield and fight it off, or maybe later, much later, he’ll go back to one of his temples and have some priest suck him off.”
The thought made me almost cum, and I had to bite back my orgasm and turn my eyes away again. Ares slowed his thrusts. His hand dropped from my cock and stroked my chest and played with a nipple for a moment, as if letting me recover.
In a moment, I looked back at the pair in the viewing well. Iphicles was gripping his cock firmly, pumping it, his pace quickening. As we watched, he slipped a finger down and teased his ass, then slipped it inside, his hips thrusting up to meet it.
“Oh, yes,” Ares whispered. “He’s ready. Look – his muscles are all tense, his hand is moving so fast.”
Ares picked up his own pace, gripping my cock tightly and thrusting deeply in my ass. I felt the blinding heat build inside of me, the overwhelming ache of pleasure as my orgasm neared once again.
“Look at Cupid,” Ares said, his voice tight. “He doesn’t know what to watch – Iphicles’ cock or his face. Which do you think he’ll watch?”
On the cot below Cupid, Iphicles body convulsed, his head thrown back, the muscles and tendons in his strong neck straining with the intensity of his pleasure. His hand gripped his cock just under the head and squeezed , the white fluid spurting out over his chest. Cupid watched Iphicles’ face while the mortal came, and that did it to me, I couldn’t hold back any longer. I couldn’t believe it. Such sympathy on Cupid’s face. I’d never imagined it possible from him.
“Yes,” Ares groaned as he thrust hard, slamming himself inside of me as he felt my ass clamp down on his cock. “I knew you’d like that,” he said breathlessly and then groaned as he came deep inside me. His lips pressed against my neck, and then he bit down softly on the thick muscle of my shoulder. After a few moments, Ares stirred and whispered in my ear. “Cupid watched his face, looked into his eyes when Iphicles came.”
I nodded. Cupid’s lips were almost touching Iphicles’ as the mortal lay panting on his cot, recovering from his orgasm. When Iphicles moved to clean himself off, Cupid left the cot and watched from a distance. Iphicles took a rag from beneath his cot and wiped the cum off his chest and then went to a table at the side of the room and splashed cool water over himself. Before he returned to his cot, Iphicles stood and looked out the high window at the starry night. What was he thinking as he stood there? Was he thinking of the life he’d lost on the battlefield in Corinth? Of the wife he’d left behind, of his impending death? Suddenly, it all became too sad for me and I had to turn my view away from the images on the surface of the well, a feeling of sickness in the pit of my stomach.
Ares pulled his cock out of me and waved his hand over the viewing well.
“It’s beautiful but sad.”
I couldn’t reply. I felt tainted by what I’d watched, as if some of Cupid’s misery was seeping into me. Ares must have sensed my unease, for he wrapped his arms around me and tried to soothe me.
“We’ll watch Iphicles fight tomorrow,” he said and cleaned us both off with a thought.
“I don’t know if I can stand it. It’s all too... depressing.”
“Come with me,” Ares insisted and kissed my neck. “You should go, you should watch this. It might help us understand Cupid, figure out how to help him.”
“All right,” I agreed, regretting it the moment the words slipped out of my mouth.
I felt an impending sense of doom throughout the night so strong that I couldn’t rest and I spent the hours after we left Iphicles’ room pacing my rooms. I knew that Iphicles wasn’t scheduled to fight until late in the afternoon the following day. The morning would be taken up with the animal fights, followed by the execution of local criminals by crucifixion or by being burnt at the stake.
The real show began after lunch, when the gladiators came out and fought to the death. As the star attraction of the day, Iphicles’ fight was scheduled for later, just before dusk.
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to watch, just in case he died. Frustrated, I finally decided to confront Cupid to see if I could talk some sense into him. When I materialized in his temple, I found him busy engaged in a duel with an animated suit of armour, its spear and shield moving as if on their own accord, meeting each of Cupid’s movements with amazing accuracy.
Cupid moved with deadly grace. Naked from the waist up, his body glowed from the heat of his exertions and sweat shone on his skin and dripped off his curls. As he fought, his great wings were spread out behind him, and the iridescent black plumage caught the light from the torches which flickered around us. He looked both fearsome and so incredibly beautiful, my heart ached for him. What torture he put himself through! How much hurt must he feel inside to be so consumed by this passion of his?
“What the fuck are you doing here, healer?” he growled when he saw me. “I didn’t call you.” He continued to fight in spite of my presence, his sword slicing through the air, knocking his ghostly opponent’s shield to the ground.
I watched him and said nothing in reply. He was on the attack, thrusting forward, pressing his opponent back towards the wall.
“Well?” he said as he met the suit of armour’s own sword blow for blow. “What do you want?”
I hesitated. What did I want? What in Tartarus does one say when trying to talk about unrequited love to another god? Especially a god of war?
Finally, Cupid had the suit of armour pinned against the wall, his sword’s blade against an invisible neck. A quick movement of his hand and the god had stabbed a short dagger into an invisible gut, slicing in and up in a murderous thrust. After a moment, the armour fell to the ground piece by piece, like leaves from a dying tree.
Cupid stood back, sheathed his sword and dagger, and bowed to the invisible opponent now lying in pieces on the floor in front of him.
“Well?” he demanded once again as he approached me, standing so close I could feel the heat coming from him. He looked me directly in the eyes and waited. I swallowed hard.
“I know about the mortal,” I began, my voice choking in my throat. “I know about you and Iphicles...”
My voice was quiet, but it sounded incredibly loud in the silence that followed. His face betrayed his emotions for only a moment -- a brief flash of anger only visible for the slightest fraction of time, then nothing. He closed his eyes for a moment as if shutting off all emotion and then turned away from me, walking to the huge alabaster throne at the end of the room. He faced the throne, but didn’t sit on it. Instead, he fiddled absently with the hilt of his sword as if making a decision. Finally he turned and faced me, then folded his wings and seated himself.
“So,” he began, tilting his head and watching me like a hawk would eye its prey. “Tell me. What is it you think you ‘know’ about me and Iphicles?”
“I know you’re in love with him,” I replied. “And I know you haven’t... approached him.”
Cupid shook his head and looked away, a small smile on his lips as if he thought me a silly child or meddling old woman.
“He is beautiful,” Cupid admitted.
Cupid leaned back as if in resignation and looked off into the distance. I felt he was struggling with himself, perhaps trying to decide whether to talk to me, reveal his feelings to me. Finally, he spoke, but I could hear just a note of reluctance in him.
“He has this quality about him,” he said, rising from his throne and walking back over to my side. He stopped and looked me over, his eyes tracing across my face. “Strength but mixed with soul. His strength seems to hold in his emotions with a grip so tight it’s as if he’s afraid to let them loose. It’s hard to describe.”
I looked at the god of war. Those words could be used to describe him as well.
“Yes,” I replied, thinking of the beautiful Iphicles. “That’s very attractive in a man, isn’t it? You want to be the one to let loose those emotions.”
He nodded and looked off almost wistfully.
“Why don’t you try to seduce him?” There. I said it. Cupid closed his eyes and shook his head once again. I half-expected him to blast me with a bolt of energy for being so honest.
“It’s so easy for you, isn’t it?” he said finally, looking up at me with those green eyes. “You and Ares...”
“What do you mean?”
“Of course it is. What do you mean?” I laughed, then regretted it immediately. I looked at his face. There was so much emotion just under the surface almost bursting to get out but reigned in tight -- so tight. My words and tone betrayed a callous disregard of him and a sick feeling crept into the pit of my stomach as I watched the transformation on his face.
Of course. He was War. Death and triumph. Destruction and conquest. Mayhem on the battlefield. Pain of the wounded and dying and fear as men faced their mortality. These emotions were not much use in the pursuit of love.
Cupid walked stiffly away from me and, his back to me, adjusted a tie on a suit of hoplite armour against the wall.
“Of all the gods, I thought you might understand. Ares can’t.”
“Understand what?” I said softly, hoping he wouldn’t stop, that he’d open up a bit to me, explain himself. I went to his side and laid a hand on his shoulder, but he pulled away.
“I don’t know how.”
“How to what?” I prodded, but in truth, I knew what he meant.
“How to make someone love me. Not even a fucking mortal.”
He turned finally, and looked at me and those green eyes... They felt like daggers in my heart. Drawing out his sword, Cupid ran the sharp edge along the joint between his thumb and palm, drawing blood. The wound was deep -- I could see the bone beneath the pink flesh before the blood welled up. After a sharp intake of breath as he felt the pain, he examined the wound and watched unconcerned as the blood dripped off.
“I’ve never had a lover,” he said, and his voice was once again tight and in control.
I reached out instinctively at the sight of his wound, wanting to take his hand and heal him, but he pulled away and smiled. The blood flowed quite freely, running down his hand and forearm. It troubled me but he seemed to enjoy it.
“You’re not a virgin,” I replied, unable to hide the distress in my voice at the sight of his wound.
“Oh, no. Of course not,” he replied. “But fucking someone isn’t the same as loving them. I’ve watched you and him. I can tell the difference.”
I felt a chill go through me at the thought he’d been watching us make love. I’m such a hypocrite.
“Can you imagine that?” he said, his voice filled with detached amazement. “I’ve never been loved before. So in a sense, I am a virgin.”
“Someone must have loved you,” I protested, my body aching to take his hand and heal it. “Maybe you just didn’t know about it.”
“No,” he replied, and his voice was strangely unconcerned. “Ask Ares. There’s been no one. He’s tried.”
I stepped closer to him but he moved an equal distance away.
“All those years, alone,” he continued.
I felt my throat constrict as I listened to him. He seemed to shake himself out of a reverie and then faced me again, the blood now dripping off his elbow onto the stone floor.
“You think I’m in love with Iphicles,” he said. “Maybe I am. He’s beautiful. He’s talented. He’s brave and strong. I could love him, but could he love me? I have no idea how to make him or what to do if I could.”
“Let me heal that,” I said, unable to watch him bleed all over the floor any longer. I grabbed forcefully and he didn’t resist, just looked at my face and smiled as I closed my hands around his bloody one, sealing the wound with my powers. As I did, his blood covered my hands and I felt the pain of his wound briefly before I was able to heal the damaged nerves.
“Cupid!” I cried, unable to stop, frustration getting the better of me. “Why are you doing this to yourself!” I didn’t let go of him even though his wound was healed, but pulled him closer, angry at him for his foolishness.
“I can’t face it,” he whispered. I could barely hear him.
“Face what?” I didn’t let go.
I shook my head, not knowing what to say, but feeling such emotion that I felt I’d explode.
“You’ll find someone,” I said. “Someone will love you. Maybe not this mortal, but someone else.”
“No,” he replied, and closed his eyes. “I don’t know what to say or do. Not even with Iphicles. You and Ares -- you think he’s just some mortal. Why don’t I just appear and take him? You would. Ares would know how to seduce him. So why can’t I just do it?”
We stood together, almost embracing but not quite. I still had his hand clasped in mine and his body was pressed against me. Neither of us moved closer or pulled away. “I watch him, Hades. He’s so close to death that each minute’s become so full of meaning it almost drips off him. When he works on his mosaic, each piece of stone he takes is just one stone closer to his death. Each one becomes more meaningful than the last. He aches over each stone, fighting his choice, knowing that he’s almost done and when he is, he’ll die.” He looked away and said nothing for a moment.
“Death follows me everywhere,” Cupid said finally. “Whether I succeed or fail on the battlefield, death is always there for my warriors. It’s a constant threat that makes their lives meaningful. But not for me.”
He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.
“No matter how good or bad I am as the god of war, I can’t die. Iphicles. He will die, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. Each moment is so ... full, because he knows it. My existence is nothing -- nothing -- compared to his.”
"You’re a god,” I protested. “You’re War. Because of you, nations rise and fall, armies conquer, plunder. Your existence has a great deal of meaning.”
“It’s nothing,” he replied, shaking his head slowly. “Nothing compared to just one life.”
He pulled away from me and I let go with reluctance.
“I don’t know how to act, Hades. How to be tender the way you are with Ares. It’s natural with you. With me, it feels like...” He couldn’t continue.
I didn’t know what to say in reply.
“Well, I can’t face it so I’m going to become a gladiator,” he said, and I could hear the resolve in his voice. “I’m going to give up my godhood and fight in the arena.”
“Of course I can,” he laughed. “You said so yourself.”
“Cupid!” I cried, panic filling me. “Ares can teach you... he can help you with this. You can learn to be tender, to touch someone. Seduction is something you can learn. I did. You could try...”
“No, it wouldn’t work,” he said, brushing off my suggestion with a wave of his hand. He seemed calmer, as if he’d made up his mind and was now relieved. “Your instinct is to heal, so touching someone else, seducing them is so easy. My instinct is just to take, to take with force, to attack, to devour. That won’t get me far with Iphicles. But if I’m down there in the dungeons with him, fighting with him, I have a chance of knowing him as a warrior knows another warrior. I’ll face death with him, maybe even be killed by him. That’s about as much as I can expect.”
“This is unconscionable,” I insisted, following him over to his throne. “You can’t let yourself be killed! Zeus will never agree to it.”
“I won’t let you die!” I almost yelled. “I’ll tell Zeus. He’ll put a stop to this. Aphrodite... she won’t let you kill yourself.”
“What does she care? She never loved me, that dried up old bag. And Zeus. Don’t talk to me about him. He’s had everyone as a lover, but not me. He won’t care.”
“I won’t allow this.”
“Hades. Don’t stop me. Let me feel alive, let me take a chance and feel meaning for once,” he insisted, and grabbed my shoulder. “I’ve arranged it with the editores. After the fight today, I’ll turn myself over to the owner of the gladiator school and become Iphicles’ new roommate. We’ll train together.”
I almost shook with frustration, but what could I say? He probably had more of a chance to become close to Iphicles as a fellow gladiator than as a god. Besides, I had even said it myself. Let him die if he didn’t want to be a god, if he wanted to feel pain. Of course, I hadn’t really meant it, not really.
I turned away, unable to stand the sight of him any longer, the brightness in his eyes, the resolve on his face.
“Hades,” he said as I started to leave. “Please understand...”
I couldn’t stay, and even though he called out to me, I dematerialized. When I arrived in my rooms, nausea overtook me and I had to retch into a basin, but even that didn’t take away the sickness I felt inside.
He materialized almost as soon as I whispered his name.
“Hades...” he said in alarm and held me tight, running his fingers through my hair. “What in Tartarus is wrong?”
“You won’t believe it,” I managed to gasp. “He’s going to do it, he’s going to give up his godhood and fight in the arena. He wants to die.”
Ares merely raised his eyebrows.
“Ares!” I protested, standing up and pulling away from him. “You can’t think it’s all right. He’s a god.”
He shrugged and moved over to the plush sofa against one wall and lay sprawled across it, his arms spread out along the back.
“You said it yourself. You said he should give it up, become a mortal if he wanted to feel pain. I’d think you’d be pleased. No more need to heal him.”
“He said he’s never been loved, that he’s never had a lover,” I said as I sat on the sofa beside him and leaned back, closing my eyes as I thought of our encounter. I looked at Ares for affirmation and he nodded. “Gods,” I said quietly. “I don’t understand.”
“He’s a hard one to love.”
Ares was watching me, appraising me silently as he was prone to do.
“Everyone has something in them worthy of love,” I protested. “He’s brilliant on the battlefield. Well, he ‘was’ brilliant, until recently. And he’s a lot deeper than I imagined possible.”
I saw the tiniest of smiles pass over Ares’ lips, but he covered it with a hand before looking at me, guilt clear on his face.
“It’s just funny to hear you say that,” Ares replied and rubbed my shoulder. “You seemed so... unwilling to give him the least bit of sympathy yesterday.”
“Well,” I replied with reluctance, not wanting Ares to keep looking at me that way. “I talked with him earlier. He’s obsessed with mortality. He says he can’t face eternity with the prospect of being unloved. But there has to be someone for him. Haven’t you tried to match him with someone?”
Ares shook his head and pulled me closer. It was comforting to be in his arms. His touch took away a bit of the ache inside of me.
“With Cupid, it’s all or nothing. There’s nothing in between, no subtlety, no slow seduction. Once he opens up, it’s mayhem until he’s finished. He can’t seem to see his lover as more than an object, something to take, to conquer, to plunder. There’s no affection, no lover’s words whispered in the ear. Just fucking till it’s done.”
I thought about what Cupid said earlier. He said love came easy to us, Ares and I. We knew how to touch. Cupid knew how to take, to master, to triumph, to defeat. He didn’t know how to surrender.
“Some people like to be taken,” I replied. “Surely someone like that would...”
“No, I tried that,” Ares interrupted. “Even the most submissive men I paired him with found him to be stone, unmovable and hard. Besides, he doesn’t seem able to moderate his strength, and can be downright dangerous. He doesn’t mean to be this way,” he said and leaned back against the plush pillows at the end of the sofa. “It’s like there’s something broken in him. Something preventing him from making that connection to another person so that he can give and take the way lovers do. Even the most submissive has needs. Cupid can’t give. He just takes.”
“I still say he can learn,” I protested. “You could teach him. Why won’t you?”
Ares frowned and looked away.
“I have better things to do with myself than try to teach him about love. Not the way he is. I need a willing student. Cupid is too afraid to even try.”
“Can’t you make someone fall in love with him?”
Ares laughed, and looked at me as if I was naive.
“Hades!” he said and rubbed his foot against my thigh. “I can’t force love. All I can do is bring people together. The rest is up to them. I can make them notice each other, but if the attraction isn’t there, it just won’t work, no matter what I do.”
He came over to me then and straddled my hips, wrapping his arms around my shoulders and leaning his forehead against mine.
“I’ve tried,” he said softly. “I’ve looked at everyone I know, every god and mortal who might possibly be a match for him. I know how lonely he is. It breaks my heart to see him suffer, but even the god of love has a few lost causes.”
“Force him,” I insisted. “Teach him how to control himself. That’s what he wants. He wants to have a lover so badly, he’s willing to die so he doesn’t have to be alone anymore.”
“And just how am I to force him? It’s pretty hard to restrain a god.”
I looked away from Ares for a moment, trying to think of a way.
“I could immobilize him,” I said hopefully. “Prevent him from responding too quickly. I can alter him, slow him down. You could show him what it feels like to be seduced, to be taken so he knows how good it feels, so he knows what to do.”
“He hates me.”
“Nonsense,” I replied dismissively. “He was infatuated with you. You said so yourself. He’ll respond to you. How could he not?”
“You do it,” he said and looked into my eyes, holding my chin to stop me from looking away. “You’re good at this too, Hades. Good enough to seduce me.”
I smiled at Ares and squeezed him. Then I remembered Cupid’s glorious body after his practice with the suit of armour. He was beautiful. Those wings... The thought of touching them, rubbing my face in them, running my fingers through them. The shapely lips, those green eyes. All that passion locked inside.
Ares smiled as if he read my thoughts and kissed me suddenly, his lips like velvet against mine. He ground his ass in my lap, pressing against my rapidly thickening cock.
“You’re hard already just thinking of it.”
“I’m hard because you’re sitting on me, wiggling your ass.”
Ares heaved a sigh and laid his head on my shoulder.
“He’ll fight me. He won’t even want me to touch him. Remember -- I rejected him.”
“He won’t be able to fight you physically. I’ll make sure he’s unable to do a thing at first, and you can arouse him, then slowly, I’ll let him have greater control.”
“You’ve thought this all out, haven’t you?” Ares said, a hint of amusement in his voice.
“I feel... responsible for him,” I protested. “I know he’s hurting, and I can’t help but want to take his pain away.”
“I know,” Ares said softly, and pulled me closer, wrapping his arms tightly around me and kissing me deeply. He pulled away and looked in my eyes for a long moment.
“Ok,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
“Now,” I said quickly. “He’s going to do it after the fight, give up his godhood. We still have a couple of hours.”
“Where is he now?” Ares asked. We stood and went to my viewing well. I waved my hand over it and his image appeared on the surface. He was back in his rooms on Olympus, pacing the floors, his wings spread, battledress on and sword ready at his side.
We appeared in Cupid’s rooms unannounced and he swung around when he felt us materialize, his face a mask of anger.
“Hades. What in...”
I went to him immediately and put my arms around him, one hand stroking his brow, searching with my powers for just the right spot. I felt a surge of adrenaline race through his body when I touched him and sensed his emotions. His reflexes were so acute that when he felt me touch him, he was primed and ready to fight.
“Don’t,” I said softly as I looked into his startled eyes. There was anger in them and, surprisingly, fear. Then I found it, and felt all physical resistance stop, although emotionally, he was still at the ready.
“What are you...” he struggled to say. I felt his muscles give out and had to use my powers to hold him up.
“Just relax, Cupid,” I said, and nodded to Ares. The god of love came over to us and helped me carry Cupid to the bed against one wall.
“No,” he managed to whisper.
“Hades wants me to teach you how to touch,” Ares said softly as he sat on the bed by Cupid’s side. Ares ran his hand softly over Cupid’s brow, brushing aside the loose curls from his forehead. “He’s taken away your ability to fight, so don’t even bother.”
I sat on the other side of Cupid and touched his shoulder, wanting to see what state he was in. His heart was pounding too fast. He couldn’t stand to be so helpless.
“Calm yourself,” I said as I bent over him and looked into his eyes. “This is for your own good, Cupid. If you get a chance with this mortal you’re so enraptured with, you’ll have to know how to seduce him. Just let go, let Ares show you.”
He couldn’t speak. I could see him struggle even to make a sound and knew I’d put him too deeply under. I lay my hand on his brow and raised his level of control just a touch.
“Fuck,” he breathed. “Let me fucking go.”
“We’re not going to let you go,” I replied. “If you fight this, I’ll put you back under so you can’t even talk.”
“Don’t let him touch me.”
I looked at Ares and he shrugged.
“Told you so,” he said, and looked at Cupid from the corners of his eyes.
“I know you have a past with him,” I insisted as I leaned over Cupid. “But he’s the god of love. Who better to teach you than him?”
Ares reached out to touch Cupid, but the war god almost hissed.
“Don’t fucking touch me!”
Quickly, I lay my hand on his brow again and deepened his loss of control. I saw him strain just for a moment, but then he went limp.
“Cupid,” I said, and held his face in my hands for a moment so that he had to look me in the eye. “You’re a brilliant war god. Don’t give up so quickly. Maybe this mortal could love you, but not unless you learn to touch and be touched. Let Ares teach you.” I looked in his eyes but there was nothing.
“Cupid!” I whispered, leaning down to him so that my lips were close to his ear. “You’re so beautiful. You are.” I looked into his eyes. “There’s so much emotion in you,” I said. “You deserve to be loved.”
I felt him break. He finally gave in, but I could feel how hard it was for him as I touched him.
“That’s it,” I said and pressed my lips against his brow. “Just accept the feelings. Let it happen. Don’t fight.”
I couldn’t help myself. My lips moved over his cheek and lower, to his lips. Stopping there, poised just over his mouth, I waited, feeling tension build in him when he realized I might kiss him. I looked in his eyes for some sign but couldn’t read him, so I increased his control just a hint. He gasped, then pressed up so that his lips touched mine. With whatever strength he had, he kissed me and I kissed him back, unable to stop, responding to him, to his almost panicked desire. Finally, I pulled away and looked at Ares.
“You’re doing so well. Why not continue?”
“No,” I protested, but a surge of excitement went through me. “You’re the god of love. You’re the best one to teach him.”
I looked at Cupid. He’d turned his head and was looking at me.
“You,” he said once again.
Ares smiled and leaned back as if giving me room to manoeuver.
“Cupid,” I said softly, touching his cheek, stroking his hair to calm him. I traced the high arch of his brow in admiration with a finger, then ran my thumb over his lips. He was truly beautiful. “I’m not as skilled as Ares,” I protested. “He knows everything there is to know about love. He’s the best one to teach you.”
“I don’t want him.”
I looked up at Ares quickly, to gauge his response. He wasn’t hurt that Cupid didn’t want him. If anything, Ares seemed pleased.
“He’s all yours.”
I hesitated. Although I felt my cock stiffen at the thought of making love to Cupid, of having control over him and giving him pleasure, teaching him how to touch, I wasn’t sure what to do first.
“What should I do?” I asked Ares, genuinely unsure of myself now that it was my responsibility.
Ares smiled, his eyes almost twinkling with delight at my seeming helplessness.
“Do whatever you want. You have control,” he chided softly. “You know how to do this, Hades. Follow your instincts.”
“My instincts,” I replied doubtfully.
“You’re a healer,” Ares replied. “You know how to touch. Explain it to him, tell him how you feel. Tell him why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
I nodded and turned my attention back to Cupid, who was looking at me with that familiar intense concentration. So much intelligence behind those green eyes, so much emotion just under the surface.
Zeus! I was almost breathless.
I looked up at Ares and hesitated. Cupid lay at my side, his dark wings spread out beneath him, his flushed face turned towards me. I can’t say that he was entirely eager. He jumped when I touched him, as if he’d been hit, and was all jagged nerves. I sensed his curiosity and arousal, but also an emotion that verged on anger. Ares was watching me intently and when he saw me hesitate, he smiled.
“What is it?”
“I...” I said, unsure of how to explain myself. “I feel... strange. Doing this in front of you.”
“Don’t make me leave,” he replied and shook his head slowly, still smiling but with a pleading look in his eyes.
“I...” I hesitated. Making love to Cupid with Ares there. It felt too much like cheating. “With you here, I...”
“You know I’ll watch anyway,” Ares protested, tilting his head in that characteristic way. “This,” he said and looked at Cupid and then back to me, “this is what I live for. Let me stay.”
I looked at him for a long moment. There was such pleading in his eyes. How could I refuse? I leaned over Cupid and grabbed Ares by his hair and pulled him to me, kissing him, and the touch of his lips on mine evoked images of three bodies entwined. But no -- Cupid wasn’t ready for that -- not yet.
I pulled away and took a deep breath and then turned my attention back to the god of war. He looked calm enough, but when I laid my hand on his chest, he did it again. His body responded as if he’d been struck and his emotions surged, almost taking my breath away. I swear if he’d been under his own physical control, he’d have lashed out at me.
Yet, when I leaned down and kissed him, he kissed me back, his lips opening and his tongue searching ouot my own. When they touched, I heard his deep throaty moan. Such intense and conflicting emotions in him! Anger and lust, fear and desire.
“You don’t want this?”
He didn’t respond.
“I can stop.”
“No,” he whispered, straining to speak.
He closed his eyes and swallowed, his chest rising and falling rapidly despite my efforts to calm him. He didn’t speak, just opened his eyes and looked at me, then nodded.
I lay alongside his body and just looked at him, enjoying the sight of him, of his wonderful eyes, the sensuous lips, the rough growth of beard, the golden skin.
“You’re beautiful,” I said once again and looked at him. He closed his eyes for a moment, as if that was too hard for him to hear, but then returned my gaze. “If you and I were lovers,” I continued, “and this was our first time together, I’d want to undress you, seeing slightly more of your naked body as I removed each piece of clothing. And so...”
I reached out and released the ties that held the metal armour covering his chest, lifting it off to reveal the black leather vest and tunic underneath.
“You are magnificent,” I said as I admired him, lying there helpless, completely mine. “I remember the first time I saw you fighting, crashing through the battlelines, your wings outstretched, your sword slicing through the enemy like a scythe through wheat.” As I removed his vest, I delighted in the glorious musculature, the smooth skin. There was so much more to him that appeared on the surface. I thought of his skill with every weapon, of his fearlessness on the battlefield, of his tactical brilliance. Even Zeus admitted as much. “I was afraid of you when I first saw you fight,” I admitted, “but was so much in awe of your skill.”
I then undid the thick belt and slipped it from around his waist, lifting the heavy sword along with it. He gasped as it was removed from him and I realized he’d be concerned for its safety.
“Don’t worry -- it’s safe.”
Off came the leather boots, one at a time, and then I had to lift him to a sitting position so I could pull the tunic up and over his head. Straddling his hips as I pulled it off, I gave him just enough control to assist me so that he wasn’t entirely limp. He immediately put his arms around me with what little strength he had and tried to kiss me again. I had to stifle a chuckle at his eagerness and when I let him kiss me, not wanting to deny him this soon, I ran my hands greedily up his strong back, my hands stroking his wings and cupping his face. As I did, I felt his eagerness but that underlying anger as well.
It confused me -- what was the source of this anger? He wanted to kiss me. I could tell by the thickness of his erection pressing against my groin that he was aroused, but the anger was there, surging forward when he touched me.
“Cupid, I can stop right now if you want.”
I pulled away from him, my own arousal flagging just a bit at his anger, but he only pulled me closer and kissed me again.
“Fuck, Hades, let me go,” he pleaded, his voice barely audible, “just let me go.”
“You want to leave?”
“No,” came the exasperated response. “Release me.”
I stopped and considered it, looking in his eyes, trying to gauge his emotions. Perhaps he was used to my touch now, and eager enough to learn so that I could yield up more control to him. He wanted me. I had no doubt of it.
“Don’t do it,” Ares cautioned, his voice almost inaudible and with a note of fear. He looked at me and shook his head.
I ignored him. My hands ran over Cupid’s chest, my fingers stroking his nipples until they puckered and he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, his exhale ragged with lust. Again, a surge of anger... Maybe the anger was from being constrained. He was, after all, a war god, used to being in control.
I released him.
In an instant, I was on my back with him on top of me, his entire bulk pressing me down into the soft mattress, his mouth covering my own. His passion overwhelmed me for a moment, and I just lay there, not resisting or trying to control him. Ares leaned closer and as Cupid kissed my neck, I caught the love god’s eye and shook my head when he reached out. Then Cupid’s movements on my body became more intense, his hands ripping at my clothing, fingers digging into my flesh, his knee spreading my thighs with such force that I knew they’d be bruised.
He had his hand down, raising up my thigh -- gods, he was so strong! He fumbled with his cock, trying to push it in me like a schoolboy with his first lover and the pain... As I shoved him away, he fought me, one forearm pressed against my neck, choking off my breath. I swear his eyes were almost red.
“Cupid, stop!” I croaked, barely able to speak. He silenced me with his mouth and when I tried to pull away to shout at him, he bit my lip, drawing blood. That did it - I used my own powers to thrust him off me, and when he came to a rest at the foot of the bed, he seemed to come out of it. It was as if a veil had been lifted from his eyes and he saw me, saw the blood running down my chin before I healed myself and realized what had just happened.
He backed away like a wounded animal and tried to speak but his mouth only opened and closed, speechless from shock and embarrassment. Ares rose quickly and tried to approach Cupid, his hands out, palms up in supplication.
“Hades, I...” Cupid whispered, looking from me to Ares and then back, shaking his head. He reached towards his sword and it flew to his hand, the belt sliding around his waist, fastening itself. He closed his eyes, and I saw the edge of his form start to dissipate and knew he was retreating, making his escape.
“No, wait!” I cried, reaching out to him, but my hand passed through him as the air crackled and he disappeared.
I turned to Ares, unable to speak, a feeling of dread spreading through me as I realized Cupid was gone. He’d no doubt go to the arena to turn himself over to the editores of the Gladiator school, our little lesson in love a dismal failure.
“Why did you release him?” Ares almost hissed at me. “I told you what he was like.” His voice was thick with grief and so tired. He dematerialized without another word, leaving me alone, horrified at my lack of judgment about Cupid.
In my arrogance, I thought I’d tamed him.
The arena late in the day is nearly baking from the heat of the afternoon sun. Soon, the sun will set, and shadows will fill the arena, birds will flutter in the empty bowl. After the last fight, slaves will rake up the bloody sand and cast the body parts in the Tiber where they’ll become feed for the vultures. An ignoble end to so many brave mortals.
Now, just an hour before dusk, bodies littered the floor of the arena, and several gladiators fought, one group pitted against another in a mock battle of enemy armies. Iphicles’ fight was next -- it was the highlight of the day. He’d developed quite a following and the crowds stayed to the bitter end just to see him slay another gladiator.
I disguised myself and entered the dark tunnels that surrounded the theatre, hoping to find the editore so I could bribe him, purchase Cupid’s freedom. I didn’t know what to do. I only knew that I had to do something.
I looked in the cells that lined the interior of the arena on the floor just at ground level, but Cupid was nowhere in sight. I stopped a guard and handed him some gold.
“Show me to the editore’s rooms. I have some business with him.”
The guard felt the weight of the coins and his eyes widened. He smiled at me and then led the way, escorting me into the editore’s rooms.
The editore was seated on the patio, watching the fights below and eating a late meal. A slave stood by and waved a large ostrich-feather fan over him while another held a shade over his bulk. The man was dressed, overdressed I should say, his garments richly embroidered and his body bejewelled and painted like a courtesan’s.
“Who are you and why did my guard let you in without permission?”
“Octavius, Sir,” the guard said quickly, standing at attention. “He said he had some business with you.”
“And some gold, no doubt, to grease the way.” Octavius replied. “Very well,” he sighed, eyeing me with suspicion. He waved me in and I approached him with my hands folded before me.
“You didn’t say who you are.”
“Someone interested in a new gladiator you’ve acquired. Greek. Dark hair, green eyes, very distinctive. Very strong and skilled with weapons.”
“Oh, you mean ‘The General’?”
“Yes,” I added in feigned recognition. “The General. Where is he now?”
Octavius waved his hand in the direction of the arena to an area which housed the gladiators. It was one level above the stadium floor and was barred like a prison. I saw several gladiators standing there, their hands dangling through the bars, or gripping them as they watched the mayhem below, but I couldn’t distinguish him from the other gladiators at such a distance.
“He won’t fight for a day or two,” Octavius continued, turning to the table beside him. It was laden with foods, cold meats, exotic fruits and bread. He took a hank of meat and ripped a piece off of it. “He’s very skilled,” he said, chewing with his mouth open, the grease mixing with the paint on his face and lips. “But he’s not quite used to the spectacle. He paid a great deal to sign on with the school. Seems he wants to go out in a blaze of glory.”
“He told you that?”
“Not in so many words, but I know men, especially ex-warriors,” he replied. He searched the selection and popped a fig into his mouth. After a few chews, he continued. “He made a deal with me. If I trained him, let him fight as Iphicles’ partner, he’d pay me more money than I earn in an entire year with the school. Together, he and the Greek will put on a show guaranteed to fill the arena. Or so he promised. But the coup de gras will come when I pit partner against partner in a fight to the death.”
Fear surged through me. Cupid!
“We have an agreement,” Octavius continued. “If Iphicles beats him, I set the Greek free. If he beats Iphicles, I set the General free.” He ate another fig, unconcerned at the fates of these two men, just interested in his take on the deal. Somehow, I knew who the winner of this fight to the death would be.
“I’m not supposed to let the Greek know, but it’s been arranged.”
I was unable to speak. Octavius stuffed his face while I stood by in mute horror.
“You’re the second one to ask for him today,” he said and looked me over shrewdly from head to toe. “What are you after him for? A bad debt?”
“There was someone else?”
“Yes, he claimed to want to collect on a debt before the general was killed in the arena.” A bite of crusty bread and another thick fig shoved between those lips. He mumbled, barely able to speak from the food in his mouth. “Looked like a very high-priced concubine or something.”
“No, actually, I owe him,” I answered, my mind working, but obviously not as fast as the god of love.
“Well, you can just hand it over to me,” the man replied, ripping off another bite of bread, the crumbs falling on his chest and belly. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment and then continued. “He’s now my slave, and he has no possessions. If he’s owed a debt, I’m the one you pay.”
“I’ll pay you double what he payed you if you ensure Iphicles *doesn’t* succeed.”
The man laughed, bits of food spraying around him, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“This *has* been a fortuitous day,” he wheezed and sat up. I watched with disgust as the crumbs of his meal fell on the plush pillows beneath him. “Taking the General on was best deal I’ve ever made.”
I said nothing, just watched as the man motioned to his slave for a bowl of scented water and towel. He rubbed his hands in the basin and dried them off, then stood and faced me.
“Tell me something. I’m confused. If you owe *him* a debt, I’d think you’d want to pay me to ensure Iphicles succeeded. Who is he to you? Your...friend?” he asked, an evil look spread over his face and his eyes narrowing greedily.
“Actually, he’s my niece’s son. I feel responsible for him.”
The grin faded, replaced by a look of sheer boredom.
“Well, then. It’s a deal. I’ll make sure Iphicles is ... immobilized before their fight. The General can’t help but succeed.”
“He’s very smart,” I cautioned. “He’s also principled, so he won’t want you to harm Iphicles. You’ll have to do it with my help. I can give you some medicine that will make his heart stop after the first few minutes. It’ll look as if the General succeeded.”
“I don’t know,” he replied doubtfully. “The crowds will want one of them to shed their blood, lose their life from the steel and iron, not from heart failure. Why else watch and bet on the match?”
I followed him into the dim interior of his rooms. He searched around on the jumble on top of his desk and retrieved a small hand mirror. Staring at his reflection, he applied some fresh powder to his face.
“Then I’ll give you a medicine that will make Iphicles bleed to death from the slightest wound,” I said as I watched him with fascination. “His smallest cut will become much larger and he’ll die in a matter of minutes. That should satisfy the crowd.”
He finished applying his makeup and put the mirror down, looking at me from the corner of his eyes.
“I’ve never heard of such a medicine,” he replied hesitantly. “Where did you say you’re from?”
“Greece, but I spent some time in Gaul where they have very rare medicines.”
“Hrmmph,” came the reply. “It all seems rather a complicated way to buy his freedom. Why not just pay me and take him away?”
“He wouldn’t come. He has this wish to be a hero. Seems he feels his life will somehow have more meaning if he dies in the arena.”
“Figures,” he shrugged, uninterested in the whys, just the hows and how much. “Some men just can’t wait to die.”
He paused and then extended his hand.
“It’s a deal.”
“Can I watch from here?”
He laughed and waved his hand, beckoning me back onto the patio. Slaves were cleaning up the arena from the last fight and the crowd was just starting to buzz with excitement in anticipation of Iphicles’ performance.
“Considering you’ve paid me more than it would cost to buy every one of my slaves, I suppose I could spare a seat.”
I didn’t sit. Tension filled me and I wondered if I could bear to watch Iphicles fight. While I was ultimately willing to sacrifice Iphicles to save Cupid, I didn’t really want to see him die -- at least, not until I needed him to. While Iphicles’ opponents had all been picked to ensure his success, there was still a chance, a good one, of his injury or even his death. Who knew where fate could take us all?
“Tell me about this Iphicles.”
Octavius stood beside me and took a long gulp from his cup. “Sure you won’t join me?” he asked and nodded towards a big jug of wine. When I shook my head, he shrugged and turned back to the arena. “He’s a dimacchiarii, uses two swords,” he replied. “That’s what I’ll have the General do as well. Think of it -- two dimacchiarii fighting together. The crowds will simply die of lust.”
“Blood lust,” I smiled ruefully.
“Oh, yes,” he nodded. “Nothing quite like two big beautiful men killing others, lopping off limbs and spewing blood to please the mob.”
“That’s what it’s about, is it? Pleasing the mob?”
“For them it is, if they want to stay alive,” he said, nodding to the gladiators as they left the arena. “For me it’s gold. And it’s him,” he said and turned to point to the far entrance to the arena, “who will make me enough of it to quit this flea-infested pit of sorrow.”
I looked down and there he was, the object of our collective lust. He marched out into the arena as if he was made to be a gladiator, his twin swords slashing through the air, catching the golden rays of the sun just as it threatened to slip below the rim of the arena.
He was breathtaking. Wearing no protective helmet, his chestnut waves shone in the sun and his bronzed body, so well-developed and strong, almost glowed. He was scantily clothed; the white tunic exposing much of his shoulders and strong biceps. A thick black belt circled his narrow waist and greaves protected his calves and knees.
The announcer shouted, straining to be heard above the roar of the crowd as they cheered their hero. I couldn’t hear what the announcer said, nor could the crowd over their own din, but it really didn’t matter. We all knew who he was and why he was there. His opponents’ names were of no importance.
The four gladiators who would fight against him stood in a row behind Iphicles. Together, they bowed to the statue of the god of war. Massive, it depicted Cupid with a sword raised in triumph, his wings extended. It towered over the mortals at the foot of the arena’s balcony where the emperor himself often sat, just to our left.
I looked at the statue, noticing it for the first time. It was a very good likeness, but the living details of the god were missing in the marble. Stone could never capture the deep green eyes, the golden skin, the blush to his sensuous lips, the ebony of his waves and beard. And of course, no sculpture could do justice to those wings.
The irony wasn’t lost on me as I watched Iphicles bow down to the statue of Cupid. An incredible wave of grief washed over me as I thought we’d never see the god in battle again -- not if Cupid had his way.
The fight began and I clenched my fists, holding my breath as I watched Iphicles fight.
“How can he be expected to beat four men?” I asked, trying hard not to sound too concerned for Iphicles’ fate.
“They fight, one at a time, and none of them are truly his match,” Octavius replied. “Don’t worry. They have an easy choice: fight Iphicles or die with the other humiliorii at the stake. No man would choose to die by fire if he could die with a sword in his hand.”
“You mean they aren’t real gladiators? They’re common criminals?”
“Not too common,” he said and pointed to them. “They’re the very best of the lot and since they were scheduled to be executed, I’m using them to train Iphicles. He’s almost unbeatable when it comes to strength and skill, but he lacks the *theatrical* sense a star gladiator needs. By pitting him against these men, I’m letting him develop his talents. The crowd loves him. It’s working.”
The crowd did love Iphicles. I looked at the men waiting to die at his sword. They were only slightly less bulky than the other gladiators, but they seemed impressive in their metal helmets and armour. One was a Thracian with curved sword while another a net man with a trident. The other two were dressed as typical Roman Legionnaires, with swords and shields.
Iphicles fought with one and was already on the offensive, pushing the man incessantly backwards so that he was too distracted to maintain his footing. With a broad sweep of his right sword arm, Iphicles disarmed the man, and in a flash had him pinned against the far wall. The kill, when it came, was swift and merciful.
“No, that’s no good,” Octavius said, shaking his head. “Iphicles, Iphicles, Iphicles...Too quick, not enough blood.” He turned and smiled at me. “You see, it’s a good thing I have so many of these scum to use for practice. The man’s great, he’s fantastic, but he just doesn’t have that killer instinct. I’m sure the General does and would have no trouble drawing it out, making the crowd go wild with lust. Maybe he can teach Iphicles a thing or two about a proper death.”
The net man made his approach, and Iphicles waited, as if letting the man have a fair chance. The crowd screamed when it looked as though Iphicles wouldn’t fight. The gladiator with the net was within spearing distance, jabbing the trident at him, but still Iphicles did nothing. Then, as if shocked out of a dream, Iphicles moved in a flash, and badly injured the other man’s spear arm so that he couldn’t fight. Another quick thrust of Iphicles’ sword and he went down, flopping forward onto the sand. It was almost too easy, but the crowd seemed to enjoy just watching Iphicles kill.
The two remaining gladiators looked at each other as if trying to decide which of them would die first, and finally, the Thracian ran forward and screamed as he thrust his sword at Iphicles. They fought, Iphicles’ twin swords clanging as they struck the Thracian’s long curved sword and glanced off his shield.
It looked evenly matched for a few moments as the two thrust and parried, but then, with a burst of energy, Iphicles dispatched him as well, slicing at his sword arm and then jabbing the man in the belly. He fell flat, his head striking Iphicles’ foot. Iphicles stood as if stunned, and stared at his bloody swords. It was then I sensed there’d be trouble. Iphicles looked horrified at his own strength and skill.
The crowd adored this display of death. While Iphicles lacked theatrical skill, he was very strong. The crowd knew they were watching a great gladiator in the making and cheered him on, their screams reaching a fever-pitch.
Then the final gladiator attacked and Iphicles seemed unprepared, stumbling back, shocked at the intensity of the man’s actions. He put up a good defense however, and soon was meeting the man’s sword with skill. It was as if he couldn’t *not* fight and defend himself.
Soon, Iphicles moved forward rather than standing stock or retreating, and the crowd’s screams grew almost unbearable. A wicked thrust left the other gladiator with a large gash in his thigh. He stumbled and held his shield up to ward off Iphicles’ blows but Iphicles was so strong, he soon had the Legionnaire on the ground. Then Iphicles stopped. He just stood there, not moving. The crowd was almost ready to storm the arena in their frenzy.
Octavius leaned over and motioned to one of his guards standing at one entrance to the arena. The man nodded and strode out into the arena, a long whip in his hand.
“Sometimes, they have to be encouraged,” Octavius said, shaking his head. “Maybe four was too much for one day.”
The guard shouted at Iphicles, who stood and stared at his bloody sword. Three dead men lay around him, their blood dark against the pale sand. Blood from their wounds had splattered over him, on his face, skin and clothing. He finally looked up at the guard and turned, walking slowly back towards the exit. He’d just given up.
The whip snaked out and struck Iphicles on the back and he stopped in his tracks. The arena was silent as the mob waited to see what Iphicles would do. He stood and did nothing for a moment, and the guard’s voice was clear in the deathly silence of the arena.
“Gladiator, finish the job or die.”
The other gladiators shouted from their prison, urging him on.
“Give this man a noble death,” the guard said, his voice very quiet, but still audible in the silence. “If you don’t, he’ll be burnt at the stake tomorrow with the other criminals.”
Iphicles stood with his back to the guard, and I could see the tension in his body, feel his reluctance, his horror at what he’d become. Artist as killing machine. If life was fair, Iphicles would never be here. He’d be back in Corinth doing his art, making babies with his wife. Of course, life isn’t fair, and here he was.
Finally, he turned and ran screaming at the downed man, his swords flashing, and beheaded the man with a single sweep of one blade. The crowd roared and stomped their feet, mad with appreciation for such a display. I looked at Iphicles. He stood over the fallen, headless body, and struggled for breath, his chest heaving.
He dropped both swords and left the arena while the crowd went wild.
I made my escape, begging Octavius’ leave and vanishing once alone in the corridor. I materialized in the room Iphicles shared with Cupid, but remained invisible to mortal senses so I could watch the two men unseen. I examined Cupid -- he looked strange without the wings. He couldn’t see me, so I knew he was no longer a god and my breath caught in my throat. Regardless, he was beautiful, but, oh, it pained me to see him. I wanted to go and pull him to me, but instead I stood off to the side of the room and watched, a voyeur once again, held captive by two mortals.
Cupid stood in the corner of the room, his arms crossed and his legs spread, watching as Iphicles marched in. Iphicles nodded to him but said nothing. He went immediately to the basin at the wall under his window and started washing the blood off his body. Cupid actually struggled to say something, opening and shutting his mouth, then closing his eyes for a moment, as if to gather courage.
“Impressive,” he said finally, clearing his throat before he could speak. He watched as Iphicles stripped off his tunic and wiped the blood from his legs. “I wasn’t sure you could do it.”
“I told you,” Iphicles replied, rubbing the blood away then throwing the bloodied towel on the floor. “None of them are truly my match. It’s unfair.”
“Maybe so, but they love you.”
“They love blood.”
“True,” Cupid replied. “But it matters who lets it and whose blood is let. Not just anyone can arouse them. You can.”
“I couldn’t care less.”
Cupid nodded and sat down on his cot, resting his elbows on his knees, and watching Iphicles as he poured water over his head and squeezed his hair out.
“You really hate this, don’t you? The killing.”
Iphicles looked at Cupid but didn’t reply for a moment. He took another towel and dried himself off, and put on a clean tunic.
“I’m an artist, not a soldier.”
“But you were a very good soldier in Corinth.”
“You were there?” Iphicles asked as he sat on his own cot across from the former god.
“Yes,” Cupid replied. I wondered how he’d write himself into that play. “I saw you fighting. I was with the cavalry, with the 4th division. We were the only part of the army to escape the massacre. You’re a very good soldier when needed.”
“When needed, I did what I had to, but I didn’t want to fight. I did it to protect my home. This,” Iphicles said, disgust in his voice. “This is barbarism, killing for the spectacle.”
“You’re doing it to stay alive.”
“Why? So I can be killed by someone more skilled, make a lot of money for Octavius?”
Cupid nodded and leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
“You could win your freedom.”
“Only the very best do that,” Iphicles said with resignation and shook his head. “No, I’m a dead man. I’m only alive now so I can finish off the mosaic.”
“I talked to Octavius. If you and I can put on a good show, we’ll be guaranteed the best food and quarters for as long as we draw a crowd. He wants us to fight together. Two dimacchiarii. We’d be a team.”
“Yes, I know. He already talked to me,” Iphicles replied. “It makes no difference to me.”
After another silence, Iphicles turned on his side and looked at Cupid. “Octavius said you wanted to die in the arena.”
“I feel..." Cupid said, then looked off in the distance. "I feel responsible for the defeat at Corinth. I... we failed to alter our battle plan when faced with the Roman’s new tactics. I couldn’t face my men.”
Iphicles said nothing, just considered Cupid’s words. He waited, still listening, but not forcing Cupid to continue.
“This is a more noble death than I’ll be likely to get as a civilian.”
Iphicles shook his head and lay down, holding his head in his hands. He was silent for a few moments, but then spoke, his voice so tired.
“It’s how you live that counts,” Iphicles suggested. “Not how you die. I never understood that warrior sentiment.”
“To a warrior, death is so real, you have to acknowledge it and it becomes almost more meaningful than life. In the moment of battle, you feel alive for the very first time,” Cupid said. He paused, looking at his hands almost in wonder. “Everything else is just waiting for death. Didn’t you feel it at Corinth?”
“I was scared to death at Corinth.”
Cupid smiled. “But didn’t that fear make you feel alive?”
“Well, yes,” Iphicles acknowledged. “But it only made me want to live all the more strongly. It made me want to get back to my home, to my family, to keep living. Now, that will never happen.”
“Knowing I can die -- it makes it all the more real, all the more valuable. But if there’s no risk, no threat of death, existence is meaningless.”
“Maybe for you as a soldier, but I had a wife and a farm to take over when my father... I also had my craft.”
“I had nothing. Just the military. Not even a lover.”
“You haven’t married yet?”
“I’m not the marrying type,” Cupid replied, shaking his head.
“Everyone has to marry,” Iphicles protested. “It’s a man’s duty to carry on the bloodline.”
“You don’t love your wife?”
“Well, of course,” he said quickly. “She’ll bear me sons, or would have if...”
Cupid let a moment of silence pass before he responded.
“Well, I had no one. No wife, no lover. Just my sword.”
“That’s a lonely life.”
Silence followed as both men pondered their separate existences.
“I won’t ever leave this place,” Iphicles said, doubt in his voice. “I won’t ever see my home again.”
The guard came to the room and passed two bowls of food through an opening in the grate and the two men ate their meal in silence.
I was amazed at how open they’d been, and more than a little jealous, but perhaps the nearness of their deaths made them open up in a way two men wouldn’t in ordinary circumstances. Certainly, Iphicles would never have spoken to Cupid this way had he known of Cupid’s divinity. Perhaps this *was* Cupid’s one chance at happiness.
I stayed until they both fell asleep, but after their initial conversation, there was nothing much more said between the two. They seemed preoccupied with their own circumstances, which was understandable -- even Cupid seemed sensitive enough not to push things with Iphicles. Besides, he had his own mortality to ponder.
The setting of the sun meant their day was over and the two men went to bed, the former god unable at first to sleep. He rolled on the hard cot, unused, it seemed, to being in a body subject to all the mortal aches and pains.
Iphicles lay awake for a long time and watched Cupid toss and turn. When Cupid finally lay quiet, his breathing slow and deep, Iphicles masturbated, his strokes fast and hard, almost painful, and when he came, his semen spurting over his bare chest, he gritted his teeth and seemed to fight tears. While I’d been aroused before when watching him masturbate, tonight it only made me feel incredible sadness. The orgasm couldn’t relieve Iphicles' disgust, his tension from the day, and he turned over on his cot and lay with his eyes wide open for a long while before sleep finally overtook him.
I left, returning to Olympus, and spent the rest of the time before dawn by myself. Even Ares didn’t make an appearance, no doubt giving up on the lot of us.
Several weeks passed, but it seemed like an eternity to me. Octavius had Cupid and Iphicles fighting together and pitted them against sure losers to give them time to build a reputation with the crowd. They spent each day together and practiced on days of rest. As they did, Cupid and Iphicles became more of a team, both on the arena floor and off. They grew attuned to each other’s movements during a fight, knowing almost instinctively how the other would react, and at times, their fights were more of a dance than a battle.
Finally, it was the morning on the day before the match where Octavius would pit them against each other. I spent a restless night in my rooms, pacing, worrying about the match and all the possible ways that my plans could come to no avail.
As good as he was on the battlefield as a god, Cupid was now mortal and could always be killed. I wondered what would happen when the two were pitted against each other. Oh, I knew Cupid planned to die at Iphicles’ hand. That was his way out, his way of freeing Iphicles, his way of dying an honourable death. His way of not having to face eternity alone.
I went to Ares’ rooms, but found them empty once again, the coolness and light failing to soothe me for his absence made the room feel hollow. I called him several times during those weeks, but he’d abandoned me, perhaps blaming me in some way for what happened. I blamed myself.
When the sun finally turned its face back towards Rome, I made my way to the Coliseum, appearing so that no mortal could see me, hear by footsteps and watched them, undetected. Octavius had the gladiators out in the main arena, going through their paces, fighting each other with wooden swords and shields, practising their skills.
With the big match the next day, Octavius brought in several dozen slaves for the gladiators to use for practice. I watched Cupid with particular anxiety but he had no fear, fighting each of his opponents with a look that could pass for reverence, as if he appreciated each death in a way he couldn’t when a god. Killing the humiliores was more than sport for Cupid -- he dispatched them with intense concentration, using each one to perfect some technique. I imagine that he’d done it all before, but as a god with godly power and skill. Now, as a mortal, in a mortal body, he had to perfect his skill at killing once again, but he was war. Fighting was his nature.
Iphicles stopped now and then to watch Cupid, and I sensed, as I stood beside him, invisible, the voyeur once again, that even he had to admire Cupid’s skill. When they took a well-deserved break, I stood off to one side and listened in as they spoke, feeling all the while a complete outsider.
“It doesn’t bother you, killing so many men like that?” Iphicles asked, and I could hear the frustration, the thin edge of anger and disapproval colouring his voice. “None of them could beat you, no matter what kind of weapon they used.”
“I don’t enjoy killing them. But look at it this way,” Cupid replied, sitting against the wall in the shade, the sweat dripping off his face. “I’m being merciful.” Iphicles raised his eyebrows and handed Cupid a drink of water from his wooden ladle. Cupid drank half and then poured the rest over his head to cool himself from the intense morning heat. “They’ll die anyway and if I don’t kill them now, some other less skilled gladiator will hack them to death, or they’ll die tomorrow during the games, burnt at the stake or crucified. Perhaps disembowelled. Whatever Octavius thinks the crowd might like the most. This is a more noble way to die, don’t you think, quick and by a skilled hand?”
Cupid watched Iphicles, searching out the other mortal’s face for his response, but Iphicles had to look away from his gaze. I looked at Cupid those intense green eyes, the handsome face, the dark waves there was so much just beneath the surface. Depth beneath the hard exterior. Iphicles shook his head slowly, knowing that Cupid was right but I could tell it galled him to kill these unskilled men.
And then, later, after their break, a false move, a trip -- and Cupid fell, injuring his shoulder and arm. It wasn’t broken, just strained, the tendons bruised, but it might be enough to threaten his life in the arena. It could make him less able to fight back, slow his advance, make him vulnerable. He was sidelined for the rest of the practice and sat in the shade, watching Iphicles kill one man after another. With each slash of his swords, his skill at killing grew but as it did, his face grew less animated, his mouth set, his jaws gritted more tightly.
Later, after practice, they went to the baths to clean off, prepare for the public dinner held the night before a match. I followed, standing in the corner of the subterranean caverns where a natural hot spring fed a stone bathhouse. There were benches and tables for massages. Slaves stood around, their eyes downcast, waiting for instruction. The air was damp and hot, and the sound of the gladiator’s voices echoed off the water and stone walls.
Cupid and Iphicles undressed quickly, shedding their clothes, keeping their eyes to themselves as they scrubbed off the day’s grime and blood before stepping into the hot mineral water. Then, the two men sat in the deep pools, arms outstretched on the side, their eyes closed, letting the heat penetrate deep into sore, overworked and damaged muscles. Cupid moved his shoulder and arm in an attempt to work out the knots of pain, but Iphicles shook his head.
“Leave it. I’ll massage your shoulder when we’re done.”
“Thanks. Fighting in battle is a bit different from hand to hand combat in the arena,” Cupid mused as he stopped moving his arm, taking Iphicles’ advice.
“You’re almost back in shape. You just need to warm up a bit better before fighting. You’re very skilled. I can tell you did a lot of training. You’re expert with the swords.”
Cupid nodded. “I practised with many different weapons from a number of other lands. It was a way to pass the time, studying the art of war from other people.”
Iphicles laughed, but it was a hollow sounding laugh. “The art of war,” he said, shaking his head. “Those are two words that don’t belong together.”
Cupid said nothing, but I could see his body tense just a bit. If he was insulted, he held his tongue, and a few moments of silence passed between the two men. Iphicles must have realized how his words stung for he turned to Cupid as if searching the other man’s face for his response.
“I only meant.”
“I know what you meant,” Cupid replied, cutting him off. “We’re not all able to be artists the way you are. Some of us have to find it in our lives, make what we do an art, however mundane it might be.”
“No,” Iphicles insisted. “I’m sorry. It was thoughtless. I can see how skilled you are with weapons. You’re so fast. Your aim is so accurate. I could see how fluid your movements were, graceful. It’s just strange to me, to say art and war in the same breath.”
Another silence between the two, but this time, it wasn’t uncomfortable. Instead, it was the kind where each man was lost to his own thoughts. Mortality -- what was it that was so important to Cupid about mortality -- important enough to give up his godhood? Was this chance to sit in this pool with this mortal so much more meaningful than godhood? Was he getting more from this moment than success in battle, from all the eons of existence he had behind him and in front of him?
Iphicles rose first, stepping out of the pool, water flowing off his glorious body, the dark hair plastered against his golden skin, his chestnut curls dripping as he took a towel and started to dry himself off. He was perfection. His body was the kind that drove sculptors to their art and grown men to distraction.
“Come on out,” he said to Cupid. “I’ll give you that massage.”
I must admit I felt a tingle in my groin as I thought of his hands on Cupid’s body and chastised myself for being so carnal. What I was witnessing had the weight of significance. It should be more than just some source of voyeuristic pleasure. Still, here were two big beautiful men, in the prime of their manhood, wet, naked. One about to give the other a massage. How could I not respond?
Cupid emerged, and I examined his body. He was flaccid, while I could feel the blood rushing to my own thickening cock. Perhaps he was more interested in just being with this mortal than having sexual contact with him. He, too, was a sight to behold even without those magnificent wings. Strong, perfectly developed musculature -- not as big as Iphicles, but still, perfection in form. His body had less hair on it and his skin was perfect with only a few scars earned recently in practice. He took a towel and dried off, then wrapped it around his waist.
“Sit here,” Iphicles said, pointing to a bench. Cupid straddled it, his back to Iphicles, who sat behind him and took some oil, rubbing it between his hands and then working the large muscles in Cupid’s shoulder and back. Oh, how I ached for these two! Here they were, facing certain death, both of them beset with their own personal demons, most of all, in need of some healing touch.
“Tell me about your home,” Cupid asked as Iphicles kneaded the muscle in his shoulder. Iphicles said nothing for a moment, just looked off into the distance while his hands moved on Cupid’s back.
“I live in a small villa on my uncle’s estate. I have a large room with a huge window. The light is perfect there, the room is bright all day long so I can spend all my time there, working.”
“I’ve seen your work,” Cupid said.
“You have? Where?”
“At the temple of Jupiter. The new one. All blues and turquoise. The ocean, waves, mermaids all around the edge. It’s beautiful.”
“I’m almost done. You must have seen it before you came here.”
“Yes, just the day before. And your wife?” Cupid added quickly as if afraid Iphicles would stop. “Tell me about her.”
Iphicles smiled. “We’ve known each other since childhood actually. Her parents and my aunt and uncle, they wanted us to marry from the time we were both children. We’ve always known we’d marry.”
Cupid nodded. He was silent for a few moments, content to have this mortal speaking to him with such familiarity, telling him about his private life.
“How amazing, to know there was someone there for you. That you’d have someone one day to love you, to fall in love with.”
Silence for another span. Cupid’s eyes were closed and he had the faintest smile as if he were imagining how that would be, but it was heartbreaking to see.
“I do love her,” Iphicles replied softly. “I don’t know if I ever actually fell in love with her. It seems as if we’ve been together all my life, as if she’s always been there.” Iphicles was silent for a few moments and his brow was knit. “It’s been so long since I touched her. Sometimes, I can barely remember her face, barely remember what it feels like to be touched by someone who loves me…. This place,” he said, looking around the baths, “it seems to suck the life right out of you, suck out all your hope.”
Cupid said nothing, just waited for Iphicles to continue.
“You said you’ve never had a lover,” Iphicles continued quickly, as if to change the subject.
“Have you ever been in love? Loved someone, I mean.”
“Only from afar. It’s not the same though.”
Iphicles said nothing, and for a few moments, both men seemed lost in thought.
How I ached to touch them both, and not just for pleasure’s sake, but because of the pain I saw so clearly on both their beautiful faces. Another long silence passed between them, and Iphicles began to move his hands over Cupid’s other shoulder. Put your arms around him! Hold him against you! I knew how healing that would be for Cupid. If I could have pushed them together...
And then, as if my prayer was answered, Iphicles moved closer, rubbing both of Cupid’s shoulders, and then his hands stroked down the length of Cupid’s arms to his hands as he pressed his body closer. A moment passed and Iphicles laid his head on Cupid’s shoulder, his lips just brushing the skin on Cupid’s neck. He pulled away, his hands returning to their work at Cupid’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I don’t know what happened..”
“Please,” Cupid whispered. “Don’t stop.”
Iphicles’ hands paused for a heartbeat, then began to move once again.
“Not here. Later. We have to go to the banquet.”
Iphicles stood and offered his hand to Cupid, pulling him up so that they faced each other. Iphicles touched Cupid’s cheek, brushed one of those dark curls off his forehead.
Cupid followed him out of the baths back to their room where they dressed and prepared to be displayed like the prize bulls that they were.
Something happened. I could see it in the way Iphicles behaved with Cupid during the banquet. As they entered the hall, Iphicles put his hand at the small of Cupid’s back, ushering him to a table off to the side of the room. He pushed their chairs together and when he sat, motioning Cupid to sit beside him, he laid his arm on the back of Cupid’s chair possessively. He looked out at the crowd almost defiantly and drank some water, leaning back, his legs crossed casually. Cupid seemed less at ease, and I wasn’t surprised. His body was tense, and even when he smiled at Iphicles, I could see his worry. How could he bear it? Knowing it was so close? How could I bear it, waiting to see disaster strike once again?
I must admit that I felt a stab of jealousy at the way Cupid looked at Iphicles, stealing a look at his lover-to-be when Iphicles wasn’t aware. Here he was, a former god, acting like the young man in love.
I wished the night away, but it plodded on until I felt like rushing over to them, shouting at them to leave, to go to their rooms and make love for Zeus’ sake! Finally, Octavius droned on in his pre-match speech, asking for the blessings of Jupiter for the gladiators, wishing that, if death came for them the next day, they could all die an honourable death.
Then it was over, and I followed close on their heels as they went back to their rooms. Once inside, when the doors had closed behind the guards, Cupid stopped and just stood in the middle of the room as if waiting for Iphicles to touch him.
Iphicles went straight to Cupid and stood close to him, then reached up his hand, cupping Cupid’s face, then his fingers traced Cupid’s lips.
“I can’t believe you’ve never had a lover.”
Cupid looked down, but Iphicles stopped him, lifting his chin, and then he kissed Cupid, his full mouth pressing against Cupid’s own sensuous lips. Ahhh, Ares! Where are you? You should be here. And then I felt him, the air crackling as he materialized. Standing behind me, his arms went around my shoulders and he nuzzled my neck. I could feel his long curls against my cheek.
“Finally,” he whispered, his hands slipping down my body to grasp my hard cock.
“Where have you been?” I asked, pleased to see him, but angry that he’d left me alone for so long.
“Busy. I see Cupid’s finally going to get what he wants.”
“Yes,” I replied. “But for how long? He could die at any time. He wants to die when they fight together.”
“They won’t fight each other. Not after this.”
Iphicles had pulled Cupid into his arms and was kissing him. Cupid remained passive, his arms on Iphicles’ back. Finally, I thought, Cupid wasn’t fighting.
Ares stroked me, but I stopped the movement of his hand. “Not now, ” I said, not wanting to reject him, but still. I didn’t want anything to sully this moment. “I’m sorry.”
“I understand,” he replied, and hugged me to his chest.
Iphicles pushed Cupid back, to the small cot at the side of the room, and Cupid complied, lying back on it, a ragged sigh escaping his lips as Iphicles laid on top of him. They kissed and the kisses were so sweet at first, but soon, they grew in intensity. Iphicles’ hand moved hungrily down Cupid’s body, stroking his side and hip, the muscular thigh and then slipping between Cupid’s legs. I was tense, waiting for Cupid to explode the way he had with me, but nothing. As he lay beneath Iphicles, Cupid’s only response to breathe too fast. His face betrayed a mixture of fear and desire, and when Iphicles started to pull Cupid’s clothes off, his mouth moving to Cupid’s nipples, Cupid gasped, his back arching in pleasure.
Encouraged, Iphicles moved lower, licking and kissing Cupid’s stomach, then lower still, running his tongue all around Cupid’s cock. Cupid’s hands grasped the sides of the cot, his knuckles white, but he lay still while Iphicles mouthed the head of his cock. It took only a moment, no more, and Cupid was shaking, coming like a young boy does with his first lover. But of course, this was Cupid’s first real lover. Iphicles sucked expertly, never flinching when Cupid ejaculated and I knew that somewhere in his past, he’d been with a man.
Cupid lay limp on the bed, shocked perhaps, at how quickly he’d come, waiting to see what Iphicles wanted from him. I had no doubt he’d do anything Iphicles wanted. When Iphicles moved up on the cot, straddling Cupid, his knees on either side of Cupid’s chest, I wanted to grab my own cock. Oh, gods, to watch Cupid suck Iphicles! His first taste of another man. Iphicles leaned against the wall, his arms spread, hands pressed against the stone. As Iphicles lowered his cock, Cupid in turn reached up, struggling to get close enough. Cupid licked Iphicles’ cock and Iphicles groaned, his cock jumping, his muscles tensing.
When Cupid took Iphicles in his mouth, one hand reaching up to stroke the thick shaft, Iphicles groaned again, his face a grimace of pleasure and grief, knowing, I’m sure, that this stolen moment of bliss wasn’t enough to make up for all the pain, but what else was there? What else did these two have, now, but each other?
Iphicles thrust his cock slowly in Cupid’s mouth but then pulled out quickly, and without a word, turned Cupid over on his stomach, one arm under his waist, lifting him up so that Cupid was on all fours. He reached over to the clothing on the side table and pulled out the flagon of oil, pouring some on his cock and over Cupid’s ass, stroking it between his crack, one well-oiled finger playing impatiently at Cupid’s pucker, then slipping within.
Cupid’s eyes were closed, his face placid, and when Iphicles pushed the thick head of his cock past the tight entrance to Cupid’s body, Cupid never flinched, merely gritted his teeth, grabbing the sheets in a tight-fisted grip. He kept his eyes shut as Iphicles thrust inside his body, and soon, Iphicles was erratic, his thrusts short and fast. “Oh fuck,” he groaned, gripping Cupid’s hips, pulling him back onto his cock as he shuddered, shouting from the intensity of his orgasm.
Cupid lay still, his eyes open, waiting. When Iphicles lay over him, kissing his neck, shoulder, his hands taking Cupid’s and covering them, I saw relief in Cupid’s face. They collapsed together on the bed, and Cupid rolled onto his back under Iphicles and they kissed once again, lost in each other.
Ares took my hand, pulled me away with him.
“Come back to Olympus,” he whispered, squeezing my hand. “Be with me tonight.”
“I don’t know,” I said, wanting only to be alone. Suddenly, I felt so angry at him. Why I couldn’t say, but the anger was there. “You must be happy,” I continued, unable to keep the bitterness out of my voice.
“Should I be?” he replied, his voice strangely sad.
“Well, you’ve found Cupid his lover he’s wanted so badly. You did it again.”
“You think Iphicles is the one for Cupid?”
“Were you in the same room I was?” I asked, incredulous.
Ares sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know. Were we in the same room?”
I couldn’t understand him. My mind was a mess, but he looked so alone standing there, his hand gripping mine, pulling me towards him, and his eyes -- they were so sad shining in the darkness.
“Be with me, Hades,” he said. “I need you tonight.”
How could I refuse him?
We made love, but in truth, my mind wasn’t there. When Ares kissed me, I thought of Cupid and Iphicles. When Ares sucked me, I thought of Cupid sucking Iphicles’ cock. And when I came, crying out, my grief and anxiety about this whole affair dulling the pleasure, I thought only of being alone.
Ares knew, of course. He always knew these things. Usually, he would have just let me be, but for some reason -- perhaps he too was anxious about the match tomorrow -- he needed to fuck me. So I let him.
I left soon after and went back to my rooms, taking one last look in my viewing pool at the two lovers. They lay together, Cupid with his back against Iphicles, asleep on that tiny cot. One night of bliss. I wondered how Cupid would take Iphicles’ death?
I had it all planned and had even given Octavius the medicine to make Iphicles bleed to death when cut during their fight.
Octavius told me that Iphicles was still unaware that they would fight each other.
“I’m not too sure they’ll fight each other,” he said to me the day I went to meet him to complete our bargain. “They’ve become quite fond of each other, as men who fight together often do.”
When he saw my frown, he shook his head. “This happens in the arena. More frequently than you might think. Put men in these conditions and it brings out the very best and worst in them.”
“They have to fight,” I said, irritated at this mockery of a man. “Cupid wants to die so Iphicles can be freed. He must think that he’s going to fight Iphicles for Iphicles’ freedom. You make sure Iphicles drinks the water with this medicine in it before their match and when Cupid injures him, even just a slash, Iphicles will die in a matter of moments.”
“What makes you think Iphicles won’t kill Cupid? Iphicles is my most promising gladiator. Yes, the general is skilled. He’s more ruthless than Iphicles. But he hurt himself yesterday. He might not be up to it.”
“When Iphicles knows he can get his freedom by killing Cupid, he’ll fight.”
“Maybe Iphicles wants to die.”
I shook my head. “No. He has a reason to live. His art, his wife, -- he has something to live for.”
Octavius shrugged and took the second allotment of money I owed him. “You’ll get the rest when you let Cupid free.”
“Cupid’s the one who wants to die,” Octavius said as I turned away. “How are you going to keep him alive when he realizes he’s killed Iphicles? What’s he got to live for?”
“You leave Cupid to me,” I said, anger growing in me at this mortal’s insolence.
“I won’t argue with gold,” he said finally. I was glad to get out of his presence.
I had to go to him, try once more to convince him not to do this.
When he was alone for a few moments during the morning, I materialized in the corner and watched him dress. He seemed strangely eager, almost happy, despite knowing that he would die. His movements were brisk, confident, and he was humming.
He turned, shocked at the sound of my voice.
“Hades!” he replied, pulling the black leather breastplate over his head. “What are you doing here?”
“Stop this foolishness,” I demanded, unable to control the anger in my voice. I went to him and took hold of him by the shoulders. I could feel the injury in his shoulder and the euphoria from his night with Iphicles. I could also sense a strange combination of pleasure at seeing me and anger. The way I always felt when I touched him.
“Come back to Olympus," I said, my voice betraying my exasperation. "I know what your plans are. You can’t do this! It’s completely ridiculous--.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he hissed at me, struggling to turn away, but I wouldn’t let him. “You have Ares,” he continued. “I have no one.”
“Come back with me!”
“Why should I? What’s there for me?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know what to say -- I didn’t know how to convince him that he couldn’t die.
“You see?” he replied finally. “You can’t even give me a reason to return. I’d rather stay here and die in the arena.”
He had that look on his face--his mouth set, jaw clenched. I wanted to shake him, pull him back to Olympus with me, but I knew it was useless.
"At least let me heal you," I said, rubbing his shoulder. He pulled away, pulled his arm out of my hands.
"I want my pain, Hades," he said quietly. "As a god, you can't understand. You don't have to feel it. My pain -- it makes this all real."
Exasperated, I fled.
There were two parts to the afternoon’s events. For the first part, Iphicles and Cupid would fight as a team with several other teams. They took on other gladiators and beat them all, dispatching them with showy, but clean kills. Obviously the fall hadn’t injured Cupid enough to seriously threaten his life, or perhaps his euphoria from the night before was a potent enough pain killer.
The crowd roared, cheering this pair on, frantic in their love for the duo. Octavius could earn a lot from them, but he had already earned several times what he earned from the whole season from me. I waited, tense, for the second part, when Iphicles and Cupid would fight each other for their freedom.
After the slaves had cleared out the bodies and swept sand over the pools of blood, Octavius announced the finale of the days’ events. I followed the two men as they were led to a waiting pen. Iphicles was unaware of the next event, but Cupid wasn’t, and if he had any fear of his death, he didn’t show it. His face was passive, blank. There was a firm set to his mouth. He was determined to die.
“Something’s up,” Iphicles said to Cupid as they waited.
“I wonder what Octavius has planned for us?” Cupid replied. It was disingenuous of him, but I suppose Cupid didn’t want Iphicles to know too soon, or he might back down.
A door opened and from one corner of the holding pen, a slave walked in with two cups of liquid. He handed one to Iphicles and one to Cupid. Ahhh, the set up. Cupid drank his down, thirsty, perhaps, from nerves. He wanted more, but the slave shook his head. There was no more.
“Take mine,” Iphicles offered. I froze.
“You drink it,” Cupid said, turning to watch out the gate, listening as Octavius began his speech. Iphicles sipped the water and then poured the rest over his face and shook his head. I prayed that he got enough of the medicine. This had to work.
They moved to the gate and then when it opened, they rushed out, the two of them, flashing their swords, swinging them to show off their skill. They stopped and bowed to the emperor’s box and then stood and faced Octavius as he spoke to the crowd.
“And now, a very special event for your pleasure,” Octavius yelled over the roar of the crowd. “Tonight, for our finale, these two gladiators, the finest two I have, will fight each other to the death. The victor will win his freedom.”
The crowd roared even louder, and the intensity of their passion shook the Coliseum. The mob loved to watch a man fight and win his freedom, but to watch two who have fought so well together fight each other, well, it was the very best.
I materialized just a few feet away from them and remained invisible. Iphicles turned to Cupid, disbelief on his face. I could barely hear him over the roar of the crowd.
“What? He must be joking!”
“This is it, Iphicles,” Cupid replied. “Your chance to go back to Greece. Have those babies.”
“I won’t fight you!”
“You have to fight me, man. What do you mean? You have to fight me or they’ll kill you.”
“I won’t do it!”
“Fool,” Cupid hissed, “Look around you -- remember where you are, artist. You’re in the arena. You live or die here.”
Iphicles stood there dumbfounded.
“You’d kill me?”
“No, I won’t kill you. You’ll kill me. This is your chance for freedom, so don’t blow it or we’ll both be dead, because I won’t kill you.”
Cupid raised his swords and lunged at Iphicles as if to provoke him. The blades missed him and I gritted my teeth. I didn’t really want to watch Iphicles die but it had to be this way.
“Come on, man! Do it! Give me my honourable death. I’ll give you your freedom.”
Iphicles hesitated again, and I really worried that he’d not put up enough of a fight and the other gladiators would indeed enter the arena and finish them both off.
Their swords clashed and they put on a bit of a show, almost as if they were just practising.
“Don’t delay too long,” Cupid yelled at Iphicles. “Do it quick, so I don’t feel too much pain.”
They thrust and parried back and forth and I waited for that first cut on Iphicles, but he was very skilled and avoided Cupid’s sharp blades with finesse.
Cupid was first to be injured. Iphicles’ blade sliced his side during a lunge.
“That wasn’t enough,” Cupid yelled. “Don’t play with me, just do it.”
Iphicles was shaking his head, his face blanched despite the heat. Cupid crouched in wait for the attack, his swords slicing back and forth slowly, glinting in the sunlight. Then I saw it, saw the blood pouring down his side, down one leg. Far too much blood for the kind of injury he sustained.
It couldn’t be.
Cupid coughed, and blood sprayed out of his mouth. He looked as startled as Iphicles, and fell to his knees, his hand at his side. He pulled it away and it was covered with blood, then he looked up at Iphicles, who rushed to him, dropping his swords.
“You did it.”
Cupid fell to the side, then rolled onto his back. Standing in total horror, I watched as Iphicles knelt down at Cupid’s side. The crowd had been almost apoplectic during the brief match, but now they grew silent, watching the two gladiators, perhaps realizing for the first time what it was they had actually witnessed. A friend killing his friend.
I was frozen in place, my mind numb, and then I felt Ares at my side. He materialized and took hold of me, his touch shocking me out of my trance.
“What did you do?” I gasped, realizing this was his doing.
“Octavius demanded twice what you gave him to change the cups. Luckily, money means nothing to gods. Come with me. There’s nothing you can do here now.”
I looked over and there he stood, Thanatos. His dark cape and wings, the pale skin, so familiar from all my centuries on the battlefield and near deathbeds, saving those I could, turning over those I couldn’t into his embrace.
“He’s so beautiful,” Thanatos said softly, leaning over Cupid’s body.
“No!” I yelled, unable to do this, to let Cupid go. I pulled away from Ares’ embrace, grief and panic rising in me. “I protest. I want this before Zeus! I won’t give him to you! He’s a god -- he shouldn’t die! Zeus can let me bring him back.”
Thanatos looked at me, a sad smile on those black lips. “He was a god. Besides, he’s not yours to give or refuse.”
“Hades!” Ares yelled, taking me in his arms once again. “Listen to me. There’s nothing more you can do here now. Come with me. Let this play out!”
“You bastard!” I yelled, grabbing him by the throat in a totally useless gesture, my anger overwhelming me. We struggled for a moment, but we stopped when Octavius entered the arena and held up Iphicles’ hand. The crowd cheered for him, but Iphicles was stunned. He, too, refused to leave, waiting while the crowd dispersed and the slaves emerged, carrying their burning torch and heavy mallet to knock Cupid on the head to make sure he was dead, the other to commend his shade over to Thanatos. Iphicles cried as he stood there, silent tears running down his grimy face, streaks in the blood and muck that had dried there from his day killing on the arena floor.
Ares pulled me with him, but I saw Iphicles’ face as we dematerialized. He was free now, free to go back to Greece, to his art, his wife, what was left of his villa. He was finally free from this Hell.
We emerged on Olympus, in Zeus’ throne room, and there, on the huge white marble altar in the centre of the room lay Cupid, his body still. Blood had run down his chin and neck, and had dried in thick wine-red streaks down his leg. He was once again pale, bloodless, the way he used to come to me back when he’d first caught this disease, this despair.
Zeus sat on his throne, his white hair shining like silver, his thick white beard long and curling. He was huge, ominous. His big voice boomed in the room, echoing off the walls.
“Tell me what’s gone on here, Ares.”
I looked around at the other gods. Thanatos, standing with that damn scythe. Ares, God of Love, avoiding my eyes. Aesclepius, God of the Underworld.
“Zeus,” Aesclepius said, clearing his throat. “It’s simple. Cupid gave up his godhood. He was killed in the arena. I claim his shade.” I looked at Aesclepius. We didn’t see him much outside of Asphodel since he preferred to remain in the underworld. He was beautiful in an ethereal way with that long pale hair and eyes that were almost white.
“I didn’t ask you.”
Ares stepped forward. “Cupid despaired of existence,” he said. “He decided to give up his godhood and become a mortal, die in the ring.”
“I decide who becomes a god and who loses their godhood. Why was I not consulted?”
Ares raised his eyebrows.
“Cupid asked me to intervene with you, to make, ah, certain he had your blessing.”
“Well? Did I give it? I don’t *seem* to remember....”
“I didn’t actually ask you. I meant to when we talked but…it must have slipped my mind….”
“Well, then. Aesclepius, you have no claim on him.”
Aesclepius looked shocked. I grew suspicious -- Zeus seemed far too in control. I expected him to rage at Ares for this, but he didn’t. He stood and went to Cupid’s side and looked over the body.
“Cupid was a damn good god of war,” Zeus said, looking around at us. “Sure, he did lose his concentration a bit this last century, but he’s too good to lose. Hades,” he said, turning to me. “Heal him.”
My jaw flapped for a moment. “You give me permission to bring him back to life?”
“I command you to.”
I was shocked. Zeus banished me once for bringing too many mortals back to life, so I had to stop, and now brought back only those who were close to death, not those who had already crossed over. But Cupid was a god, or had been, after all.
“Well? What are you waiting for?”
I rushed over and stood at Cupid’s side. It had been a long time -- centuries, perhaps -- since I’d taken a mortal back from death. I touched him, hesitant despite my panic, remembering the nausea, the grief I felt when touching a body once the shade had fled.
Cupid’s flesh was already starting to cool, and when I touched his shoulder, I cried out, unable to control myself. I ran my hands over his bones, held my hands over his heart and shuddered at the hollowness I felt, the emptiness of his once-vital body. His shade had already gone, and was likely wandering beside the shores of the Styx. I groaned as I touched him, the grief almost too much to bear.
“Send his shade back,” Zeus ordered Aesclepius, seeing the state I was in.
“What if he doesn’t want to return?” the fair-haired god said, protest in his soft voice. “He doesn’t want to be a god any longer. He can’t face it.” He turned to look at me, his pale eyes so mournful, the diamonds in his platinum crown and embedded in the white cape glinting like tears in the light.
“What do you mean, he can’t face it?” Zeus asked.
Aesclepius stepped closer. “He despairs of ever finding anyone to love him.”
Zeus frowned and turned to Ares. “What foolishness is this? I thought you said….”
Ares shrugged and looked at me. Beneath my hands Cupid’s body was being restored, and I could feel the warmth return to his flesh, his pulse quicken, his breathing start once again. When his shade re-entered his body, he gasped, a long drawn out breath announcing his return.
He opened his eyes and looked into mine.
“Hades,” he whispered. He blinked rapidly, and then looked around, sitting up abruptly on the altar. I waved my hand over him once more and cleaned the blood off him. He now looked like his old self, well, at least, his self as a mortal.
“Send me back!” he yelled, panicked at seeing us all standing there staring at him. “I don’t want to be here!” He jumped off the altar and went to Thanatos and Aesclepius. Aesclepius smiled and ran his hand over Cupid possessively, but I could see the resignation in the pale god’s face.
“That’s Zeus’ decision.”
“I don’t want to be alive, I don’t want to be a god. Let me go back. Send me to Tartarus. You might as well, if you condemn me to an existence I don’t want, one I can’t bear.”
“Tell me one good reason why I should let you give up your godhood and die,” Zeus asked, but he sounded impatient, as if bored with his role in this.
“Because I can’t face it.” Cupid replied and looked down, unable to continue.
“Not good enough. Besides, you look ridiculous without those wings.”
Zeus waved his hand and Cupid’s wings reappeared and, despite what he may have felt, his wish to die, he flapped them, stretching them out as if to reacquaint himself with them. “I don’t want to be a god,” he said, his voice mournful. Zeus waved and Cupid gasped as godhood filled him, his body arching as the power surged through him once again. He blinked and stood looking at his hands, shaking his head.
I couldn’t stand it any longer and went to him, put my arms around him. Touching him was so easy for me after all that had passed between us. I pulled him close, holding him so tightly, unable to resist touching those ebony wings. I was so relieved that he was alive. He seemed to melt into my arms.
“Cupid,” I whispered in his ear, “I don’t want you to die. I…” I couldn’t go on. Cupid pulled back just a bit, enough to look up into my eyes and I could hardly stand to see those green eyes, so hesitant, but now with just a hint of hope in them. “I don’t know if it’s enough, but I love you,” I said. Cupid sighed and leaned against me.
I looked up guiltily and saw Ares turn away, standing with his back to us.
Zeus turned to Ares. “I guess you were right after all.”
“Yes,” Ares nodded. “It just took a while for him to realize it.”