"Caesar sent you a gift," Acrecius said quietly, as they left the council room.
"Why didn't you tell me during the meeting?" Iphicles asked, and walked into his room, Acrecius behind him. "I got to hear every other detail from the Roman convention, like how Caesar's richer than Croesus, and how he's using his conquest-loot to fund an army that'll stomp us into the ground, especially with his new ally." Not even a pause to give him away, like he didn't care that Ares was banging Caesar.
"You wanted us to lie about our chances? If you could've seen where Caesar lived... I know he pulled out all the stops so we'd feel impotent, but he didn't build Rome for us, even if he did make its citizens stinking rich. And he didn't make up the rumors about divine support. We saw him with a god at the festival of Mars Invectus, in the temple itself, and they were close. But that's beside the point now. About this gift..."
"It's not a huge wooden horse, is it?" Iphicles unlatched the shutters and let the breeze bite him awake. Beyond the tall white towers of the city gates, in a wide green field, bronze-armored troops practised their formation. The men moved in perfect unison, and he made a mental note to reward Diomedes. When Caesar attacked -- and after this last diplomatic waste of time, it was a sure thing -- they'd be ready for him. He glanced back at Acrecius. "If it's a horse, torch the fucker."
A wrinkle started in the middle of Acrecius' forehead and grew into a valley. "It's no horse."
"Too bad. It would've made a great bonfire."
Acrecius didn't blink. A good negotiator with balls of steel, but no sense of humor. Still, one of the best men he'd inherited from Jason, with the perfect public face, complete with Athenian grey eyes and a coin-ready profile. Educated at all the right places, married to the right heiress, and now chief ambassador for a king he didn't respect.
"So what is it?" Iphicles stretched his arms behind his back and heard the satisfying crack of adjusted bone. "I'm not in the mood for twenty questions, especially after sitting on my ass for ten hours. If it's food, throw it out, because it's probably poisoned. Same thing if it's wine. No, wait. If it's wine, have it delivered to his ships. That's one way to win, and I'm sure Caesar'd appreciate the irony." The whole play needed some comic relief, a jester somersaulting across the stage, anything to lighten the mood around here. They'd been trapped in a Sophoclean world since Caesar sent that first tidy scroll, talking of western expansion and Roman supremacy. Iphicles and his men called it the 'Bend Over and Like It" scroll, and they'd stuck it up behind the council room door for target practice. Bonus points if you hit the red wax seal imprinted with Caesar's face.
Now, eight months later, ram-prowed Roman galleons sniffed the Corinthian harbor, ostensibly merchant ships with business further east, in Byzantium and Pergamum. Only the ships were triremes, each with a hundred and fifty rowers, and they stayed anchored offshore, dominating the horizon, their huge white sails emblazoned with Caesar's bull. The animal, that is. The other stuff came regularly in those red-sealed scrolls. The latest batch of ships had a figurehead above the prow, a tall, muscular god cast in bronze, a god who preferred a perfumed Roman bitch to--
"You're not listening to me," Acrecius said, more lines furrowing his face as he stepped closer.
"I'm always distracted right before Roman legions decimate my kingdom." Iphicles returned to the view. "I got to say, we're looking good. Caesar's troops might look pretty in their fancy-ass gold breastplates and purple feathers, but you can't beat good old Greek fighting. You never know, maybe we'll survive this. Maybe the gift's a peace-offering."
"The gift's a joke. He's making fun of you. Still, if you did make a deal with him, then we'd avoid killing everyone in Corinth."
"We've been through this. I'm not whoring myself to Rome. When Jason gave me the crown, he expected me to keep it, not toss it into Caesar's ring. Just bring me the gift so I can sort this shit out and get back to planning how to kick Caesar's ass."
"He's going to crush us if you don't give in. Anyway, the gift..." Acrecius opened the door behind him and leaned into the hall. "Send him in."
"Him? Is it a dog? If it is, drown it. It's probably trained to rip my balls off and carry them back to Rome. A midnight snack for Caesar."
It was no dog.
"Zeus," Iphicles swore, staring at a boy, about sixteen, tall and slim, wearing a grey wool cloak. He had a ghost's face, pale and haunting, with high cheekbones that shaded dark blue eyes and a mouth like those flowers on Rena's funeral wreath. "Are you out of your mind, Acrecius? Get him out of here! He's probably an assassin!" Iphicles drew his sword and held it to the boy's throat. "Don't move," he said in shaky Latin. Then, in Greek: "I was happier when he was a case of poisoned wine."
"He won't hurt you," Acrecius said. "On the trip back from Rome, I personally made sure he was harmless."
"You tortured him?"
"We're on the brink of war, King Iphicles. The rules have changed. We can't afford to take chances, especially with your life. A few of the men wanted to kill him, but I convinced them otherwise. He got off easy."
Iphicles replaced the weapon and grabbed the boy's wrists, looking at his hands. The skin was bruised and raw, bloody in the tender spaces between the fingers. Had to hurt like hell, but the kid's face stayed impassive. "Get him some wine--unpoisoned." While Acrecius filled a glass from the jug beside the bed, Iphicles studied his gift. "You speak Greek?"
"Yes, Highness," he said in a low voice. "My father was Greek."
"Good. Makes things easier. Where are you from?" Iphicles accepted the glass from Acrecius, wrapping his finger around the silver stem. "You can go now. I'll let you know if I need you."
His councillor bowed and left without a word.
"I'm from Gaul," the boy said, following Acrecius' elegant back with his eyes. "That's where Caesar found me." He relaxed a little when the heavy oak doors shut.
"Put your head back and open your mouth," Iphicles ordered. "This'll help with the pain."
The wine splashed a little down his chin, and Iphicles wiped it away with his thumb. Strangely soft skin for a teenaged boy, poreless like a girl's. And he had long thick eyelashes, dark like the curling black hair, and for an uncomfortable moment he reminded Iphicles of his former lover. Stupid to compare this pretty kid with the god of war, who'd eat him alive and build a throne with his bones. "What's your name?"
Iphicles repeated the foreign word, which came out ugly and awkward. "Tori, then." He smiled to relax him, but the kid stayed stiff and blank. "Have some more wine." He held up the cup again. "You want food?" he asked over his shoulder.
At the nod, Iphicles cracked open the door and ordered fruit, honey cake and more wine. While he spoke to the servant, Tori watched, and Iphicles gave another smile. For a second, he thought the kid might smile back, but it didn't happen. "And I want a tub filled. He needs a bath." Tori tensed, and Iphicles wondered what Caesar had done to him. "I'm not going to rape you," he said, shutting the door before moving back in front of him.
"I know. You're going to try and seduce me instead. You don't have to try. I won't fight you. That's why I'm here. At least you're young and handsome, not like most of the others."
"Who says I'm going to seduce you? I'm just trying to figure out what to do with you." He couldn't send Tori back to Rome. It'd be an insult, and he already had enough trouble with Caesar. As for the seduction, why not? Since Ares stopped visiting him every night, and with Rena in Elysium, he'd been alone, his men paired off and mated for life. So what if Tori was Caesar's castoff? Caesar was fucking Ares, which was practically the same thing.
A knock later, a line of servants entered the room, some with pitchers of steaming water in their arms, others with bowls of grapes and pears, a plate of honey cake, and a jug of wine. He stood quietly while they bustled through the room, filling the terra cotta tub near the hearth, pulling towels and a white cloth from the wardrobe, setting up the food on a short oak table. In the beginning, he'd tried to talk to them, and got a long lecture from Acrecius on protocol. 'You're the king now, so behave like one, or no one will respect you. Think how Ares acts, and imitate him.' No point fighting him, especially since the servants only stared blankly when he tried to talk to them. "Leave," he said, like Ares would, and wondered if that ghost living under his voice would ever leave.
"You're going to bathe me?"
"You can't really do it with your hands like that, and I want to talk to you alone. Nothing major. I'm just interested in Caesar."
Something passed over Tori's face. "All right. I've never been cleaned by a king before."
"Yes, well, I wasn't born a king," Iphicles said, and began to strip. He left only a strip of fabric draped over his hips. "I don't need servants to do everything for me. Now raise your hands over your head."
Under his clothes, Tori had a lean, smooth body, with unusually full, pink nipples blown hard by the breeze. His cock hung long and limp between soft black curls, with a thick rounded head, and Iphicles wanted to touch it and suck on those ripe, stiff nipples. But Tori was right. He wanted a seduction, not just a fuck. It'd make a nice change after Ares. "Climb in," he said, and put his hand on Tori's hip to steady him. Kneeling on the vine-painted tiles, Iphicles reached beside him for a bottle of oil, pouring apricot liquid into the water. Still no reaction, though. Maybe the kid just didn't want him, no matter what he said, or maybe sex didn't interest him anymore. Or maybe his hands still hurt too much to care.
"I'll get some more wine." Iphicles poured a cup from the blue jug on the table beside him, downed it quickly for the warm heat, then gave a sip to Tori, who was leaning back, eyes closed, hands dangling down the tub's carved sides nearly to the lion-clawed feet. Next, he held a polished gold pear to Tori's lips, smoothed it over them. When Tori's mouth opened for a bite, Iphicles pulled back, waited for him to settle back, then offered it again. More slowly this time, Tori opened his mouth, but when his teeth touched the pear's gleaming skin, Iphicles yanked it away again.
"Tease," Tori said, and gave a small smile, eyes still shut. "My father used to play this with me when I was a little kid. We had an apple tree behind the house, and the first day of every fall, my father'd bring an apple into the house and make us guess what it was."
He pretended to be offended. "I hope I don't remind you of your father." When Tori shook his head, laughing now, Iphicles rewarded him with a mouthful of fruit, which he chewed enthusiastically, juice dribbling onto Iphicles' fingers. His eyes opened midway through, and he studied Iphicles while munching.
"That was good," Tori announced afterward, licking his lips. "Why don't you let me suck your fingers clean?"
Instead, Iphicles scooped up a handful of water and tossed it at Tori's sticky face. "You're the one who needs cleaning." While Tori sputtered, he wet a cloth and passed it over his pear- stained mouth, rubbing gently.
"Nice." Tori's cock seemed thicker, but maybe that was a trick of the water. "I think I'd like to be king, if this is what servants do for you."
"Didn't you have servants at Caesar's?" Not overly subtle, but he wanted to know all about the Roman court to find out where he'd failed.
"I wasn't exactly a guest there. The only time I got attention is right before Caesar needed me, and that was from a disgusting old man who was half-blind, and had clammy, shaky hands. I think he thought I was a dog."
"Did he call you a lot?"
"You're asking if I slept with him much? Once in awhile. Mostly he liked to watch his friends with me."
The tension returned, so Iphicles eased him forward until one cheek rest on his knee, and stroked his back with the cloth until Tori sighed. "Do you hate him?" he asked, leaning Tori back.
"It could've been worse, I guess. The truth is, I never saw him much. I stayed in my room, and no one bothered me. Every month or so, I'd get called up for a private party. I hated that part because some of the men liked to hurt me, but it didn't happen all the time. And when he hooked up with the god, Caesar never bothered with me at all."
"Did he keep you locked up?"
"No, I was allowed to leave when I wanted. I mean, where was I going to go? During the day I'd walk around Rome. I wore Caesar's ring, and people left me alone." Awkwardly, he twisted the plain gold band on his right ring finger, revealing Caesar's bull in black onyx, with a ruby eye. "I should've given it back, but I figured it was payment."
"What about your family?" When Iphicles began to rub the swollen nipples, Tori's cock twitched, so he kept rubbing, tugging lightly through the cloth. It turned him on, knowing he could have this effect, that he could make Tori feel good, despite everything.
"My mother gave me away." He sat up quickly, splashing water. "Look, King Iphicles, there's something I need to tell you. I should've told you right away, but I didn't want… I don't know. To ruin this, I guess. And I don't want you to stop, but I think you're going to when you hear what I have to say."
"It's just Iphicles. And I don't want to stop. I like seeing your face when I touch you, and I want to see it when you come." His hand moved lower, stroking Tori's flat stomach, the tops of his thighs, but didn't touch the hard stretched skin of his cock. He let his fingers slide lower, and Tori arched under him.
"It's important." His breath came in hot gasps, and he tried to stop Iphicles' hand with his own bruised ones, but recoiled at the pain. More apricot water sloshed over the side, waves of it rolling over the green leaves underfoot. "It's why Caesar liked me. I'm… special, I guess you could say."
"Sure you are. Beautiful, young... I can see why Caesar wanted you." Iphicles slid his fingers into the warm spot under the round balls, the tight little hole that Caesar had fucked. Only something was wrong. "I don't understand." His fingers were inside, and it was hot and silky and…Wrong. "Oh, Zeus," he said at last, finally realizing, and jumped to his feet. Another quick, sharp move back, and his feet slid on the watery floor. Then he was falling like a dead man on the field of war.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Over and over again, shaky and low.
Iphicles stayed still, trying to make sense of things. His head hurt, he knew that. A cool cloth lay over his eyes and a peach-soft cheek pressed against his. At first, he thought it was his mother, worried because he'd fallen from the old oak behind the house, but his mother was dead, wasn't she? And this was a male voice repeating the litany in his ear. Hercules? But his baby brother didn't go in for emotion like that. He'd tell Iphicles to get up and do something, not lie here indulging himself. Ares? The thought made him laugh, a raspy, broken sound.
"You're alive," the voice said, wet with relief. "I thought you were dead."
Under the pain, Iphicles remembered. The bath. His fingers inside... "You. You're a--" He pulled off the damp cloth and squinted in the blue twilight, before half-turning to meet Tori's eyes, so close to his own. What could he say? Tori tried to pull away, but Iphicles touched his shoulder.
"I know what I am. I know the story. Mercury and Venus had a son, and a nymph fell in love with him. When he wouldn't sleep with her, she begged the gods to be joined with him forever. Male and female in one. A freak."
Mercury and Venus... The Roman names confused him, then he remembered. Hermes and Aphrodite. A beautiful boy and a desperate, horny nymph. Now, with his thoughts still dull from pain, it didn't seem too bad, what Tori was. Weird, sure. Different. But not disgusting. He tried to sit, so they could talk normally, but his head hurt and the pillows were comforting. So was Tori's warm body lying next to him, through the sheet pulled up to Iphicles' hips and through the tunic he'd put back on to hide himself. Iphicles could relate to that. He'd done a lot of hiding lately, maybe his whole life. "Do you hate it, what you are?"
"I don't know. I guess we all hate ourselves sometimes."
"True. I have this brother...He's perfect." Made him glad he didn't die in the fall, so history couldn't tell even bitchier stories about mismatched siblings, one a legendary hero, the other a legendary hermaphrodite-bather. He gave another rusty laugh, and heard Caesar in Rome laughing, too. What a present. What a message. What an asshole. But that wasn't Tori's fault. "When did you understand what you were?"
"From the beginning. My brothers used to tease me when we were kids. When I got older, my mother caught one of them trying to touch me, so she sent me to the temple of Mercury. It was okay until the priests found out. They needed money for their temple, so they let people use me."
Iphicles shifted, moved until his arm slid around Tori's shoulder, for warmth. Dark now, the night carried cool ocean air into the room. His headache was fading, and under the sheet his cock was half-hard, distracted by the way Tori's tunic rode up his thigh. He didn't want to move, though, not when Tori was finally relaxed. When *he* was so relaxed. It seemed like years since he'd lain in bed with someone, talking. Not since Rena's death, and never with Ares, who liked to ride him hard all night, but always left right after. "How did Caesar find you?"
"He was trying to figure out why Mercury was so popular in Gaul," Tori said, his cheek now against Iphicles' chest. "Caesar's kind of obsessed with gods. Anyway, he was passing through Aquitania during a festival and saw me. He paid off the priests and kept me with him, even when he went back to Rome."
"And now you're here."
"What are you going to do with me?"
"I don't know." Iphicles rolled onto his side, careful of Tori's hands, and rested his weight on one elbow. "You got any skills?"
A pause. "Not ones you're interested in, it looks like. I guess you're probably still wishing I was a case of poisoned wine."
Iphicles laughed. "No, I like you the way you are. And...do you want me to be interested?"
"What you were doing before, touching me in the bath... That felt really good. But I know you don't want to do that anymore.
"Says who?" He got harder, remembering how warm and slick Tori had felt around his finger.
"You ran away."
"Sorry about that. Just surprised. I wasn't expecting... What I found."
"So you're not disgusted? Most people are."
"No. Like I said, it was just the shock."
"Why aren't you touching me, then? Don't you want to?"
"It's not a matter of what I want. You've had enough people groping you. I don't want to be like them."
"You're not. If you want to touch me, do it. I want you to."
When he nodded, Iphicles kicked off the sheet and turned toward him. "I only want you to feel good, so let me know if I do anything you don't like, okay?"
Another quick nod. "This is weird. No one's ever asked before."
"It's okay. I'm not really used to asking." No need with Ares, who plunged inside him without even saying hello. Even with Rena, Iphicles hadn't done much asking. "I'll be back in a second." He rolled off the bed on the other side and lit a few candles before closing the shutters. The last gust of wind blew sweet puffs of blue-grey smoke through the room, and shadows waved from the frescoed walls. The wine tasted even sweeter, and he gulped it back, then got another glass for Tori. "Drink," he said, and helped him with it. With the glass empty and placed on a bedside table, Iphicles raised Tori's hands above his head and removed the tunic. "Now lie down and let me make you come."
Tori obeyed quickly, without question, but kept his legs together. "You can just fuck me, you know, or put your cock in my mouth. I don't need anything else."
"I know." Iphicles ran his fingers down Tori's chest and over his stomach, and smiled when he felt him shiver. The teasing gesture hardened the plump strawberry nipples, and Iphicles licked his fingertip and stroked one. "They look sensitive."
"Oh god... They are." His cock started to fill, and Iphicles kept stroking. "Usually people just bite or pinch them. Never what you're doing, all slow and wet like that."
"But you like it?"
"Yes. It's incredible. It's like, I had these dreams, you know? About someone doing it like that. But no one ever did until now."
"How's this?" Iphicles bent and licked the swollen skin, and Tori bucked under him. "I guess you like it."
"They say they're like a girl's, but I've never touched a girl's before, so I don't know. It just feels really good, what you're doing."
He felt so powerful, to make this kid feel good the way no one ever had. Is that what Ares thought when he fucked him? Is that why he never asked, never talked, just rammed his cock in, because he could tell how much Iphicles loved it? How much -- and he flushed at this -- how much he needed it? "Say my name," he told Tori and took the nipple into his mouth, sucking lightly.
"Iphicles. Oh, god, Iphicles."
When Tori whimpered, Iphicles moved to the other nipple, licking and sucking. He kept doing it long past Tori started rocking into him, and moved from one to the other until they tasted purple with blood and Tori's breath came in ragged, fragrant gasps around Iphicles' name. With a final suck, he moved higher, to Tori's neck, and licked there, too, nuzzling and nipping, while he rubbed a nipple. His cock was so full it hurt, but he didn't want to touch it. Not yet. "Can I kiss you?" It sounded stupid to ask, but he didn't want to ruin this.
"Yes," and opened his mouth to Iphicles' tongue.
Hard not to shove it in deep, dominate that soft mouth, bruise it, the way Ares kissed him. Instead, Iphicles moved over him and slipped his hand under Tori's head to explore his mouth, doing what he liked done to him, sucking his full lip, licking his tongue down the middle, fucking his mouth with long, slow thrusts. He used his thumbs to keep those plump nipples hard and broke the kiss every now and then to lick them. They were red now, gleaming wetly in the candlelight, and Iphicles understood why other men had bitten them, so ripe and juicy.
"Iphicles?" Restless against his mouth.
"Remember when I was in the bath? What you did to me there? Can you do that again, the same way?" He spread his legs. "Slow and deep? If it's still okay. Or we can keep doing this."
Hearing the hesitation, Iphicles kissed him again, still gentle, then wet his finger and brought it down Tori's body, skirting the leaking cock, over and under his balls. His stomach twitched a little when he found the slick, delicate skin beneath, so wrong on this long, narrow male body, but so right in other ways. "My wife liked this," he said, tracing the thin opening, top to bottom. Tori liked it, too, because he gave a little moan and raised his hips for more.
Did it show? Iphicles jerked his head and climbed between Tori's legs, punishing the guess with hot swipes of his tongue. He slowed only when Tori gripped his shoulder with one of those blue-smeared hands.
"Sorry. I guess you don't talk about her much. I should've let it go."
Tori tasted like the sea, and this time Iphicles savoured him, lapping until his chin ran wet, the sheet turned damp, and Tori made helpless noises above him. "You like that?" he asked, oiling his finger along the swollen edges, and rubbed the silver wetness over Tori's nipples.
"It's better than anything. Can you show me what else you did to your wife?"
He would've been inside Rena by now. And Ares..Iphicles kissed Tori's hip to forget, watching the thick cock twitch against the long, pale thigh. "I know you're not her," he said, and eased his finger inside, caressing the tender spot near the entrance. "Yes, that's good, isn't it?" He couldn't resist then, and licked the glistening head of Tori's cock, pushing his finger deeper. After the salt on his tongue, the cock tasted like honey, and he fixed on the slit, hunting for more. "Shh, don't try to talk," he said, when Tori fumbled for words. "Just let me make you feel good."
His cock kept bumping Tori's thigh, and he pushed down the scratchy tingle that hovered near his spine. Not yet. He added another finger and took more of the cock into his mouth. His hand was wet to the wrist, and he knew he wouldn't need any oil. But Tori had to ask for it. Had to say the words. Iphicles sucked harder, up and down, tongue flicking the sensitive skin under the crown, his finger moving in and out of the hot salty hole.
Tori sounded near tears, and Iphicles took the whole cock in his mouth. Say it. Beg for it.
He went faster, and the room echoed back the wet sounds. Say it.
"Please... Fuck me. Iphicles, fuck me."
Victory, and he rewarded himself by kneeling between Tori's thighs, lifting the long legs so they wrapped around his waist. The head of his cock rested against the damp, swollen skin, and that itch in his spine intensified. "Ready?"
"Yes," and he used his bruised hands on Iphicles' ass to push him inside.
He heard his own moans, but couldn't stop. The flesh around him was too hot and tight, sucking his cock up to the balls, hungry for him. "Tell me it's good," he commanded. "Tell me you love it."
"I do. It's never been like this. I feel like I'm dying."
His thighs quivered against Iphicles' sides, and even in the dim light Iphicles saw the lines of sweat under Tori's cheekbones, across his chest. The whole room felt wet and steamy, like the roof had vanished, blown away during a summer storm. "Can you come for me?" He grasped Tori's heavy cock and started to stroke it in time with his thrusts. It focused his attention, contained his own rising orgasm, and let him look down at Tori's flushed, open face. "Come for me," he whispered, and felt the rhythmic pulse around his cock, in the cock he held. "That's it. You're perfect, Tori. Now say my name while you come for me."
They were Ares' words, and under Tori's cries, Iphicles swore he heard another sound, a tear in the ether that meant Ares was here. Right before his cock burst inside Tori, he glanced over his shoulder into the room's shadowy corner. Nothing. Turning back, he kissed Tori and rode him hard. "Yes, you're perfect," he repeated and closed his eyes, his body spiked with pleasure.
Afterward, he didn't think that Tori would ever stop shaking, so he closed his arms around him. "You okay?"
"I've been fucked so many times, and it never felt like that, even when I touched myself. Maybe we could do it one last time before you send me away?"
"I'm not sending you away."
"I'm not Caesar. I'm not going to give you a room in some dark part of the palace and bring you out for parties. What you need is some kind of job. You said you walked around Rome. Did you see anything that interested you?"
"Well, my family are potters, and there was a store in Rome near the forum piscarium where I'd go sometimes to watch the men make amphoras for wine, before they chased me off. Is that what you mean?"
"That's it. Tomorrow, I'll arrange for you to be apprenticed to one of the potters in town. They'll be looking for new men because we're preparing for war. It won't be very glamorous, not after Rome, and you'll have to work your ass off, but you'll get your own room and a little freedom."
"Will you come to see me?"
Iphicles gave his answer gently, but felt like a bastard. "I don't know if that's a good idea. I don't have a lot of my own freedom."
"But we have a few days left, right? Or does it end here?" Tori rolled on his side to face him. "You did like it, right? I mean, you came and everything... Or are you turned off now that it's over?"
"Not turned off at all. I loved what we did."
"So let's do it again." He rubbed his hard cock against Iphicles' thigh. "You don't have to do anything. I can do it all for you. I want to suck you." And he bent over Iphicles' sticky cock and licked the sides, the head, until it swelled in his mouth.
Tempted to lie there and let it happen, Iphicles instead reached for Tori's thigh, encouraging him into a different position, with his cock and sweet dripping hole over Iphicles' mouth. While Tori sucked him, Iphicles licked and sucked him back, sliding a finger into come still leaking out, then removed it. Wet, he eased it into Tori's ass, pushing another back into his cunt. Between his legs, Tori moaned, and the quivering started again. Iphicles sucked harder but moved his fingers slowly in and out, feeling them meet between the thin layer of skin. Another moan from below, a tension in the body over him, and he was swallowing hot mouthfuls of semen.
"Oh god," Tori said, shaking, when Iphicles finally moved, bringing them face to face against the pillows. "You're going to kill me. But you didn't come."
"I want to fuck you again. Do you want that?"
"Yes, but don't blame me if I pass out on you."
With one arm, Iphicles repositioned him again, bringing the damp back against his chest and that warm, wet cunt over his cock. "How's that?" He licked an earlobe under the dark tangle of curls, his thrusts long and careful.
"I love it." Tori twisted around to kiss him, lids falling over sleepy blue eyes, and Ares came back from the far corner of Iphicles' memory.
He regretted taking Tori from behind, even though it meant holding him in his arms like this, because that's how Ares took him that first time, a few months after Rena died, hard and fast against the wall in the corridor outside his room. Not rape, he admitted, thrusting more quickly. In a sick way, that would've been easier.
"You feel so good," he said, when Tori turned back. He tried not to think about that first time, about Ares appearing suddenly, giving him the choice, and Iphicles just giving, opening his ass and mouth to Ares like a whore, like Ares wasn't his brother's worst enemy. Pure lust, so physical and sharp that... oh god... even now it made him come.
"I'm sorry," he moaned, and gave himself again.
"You want me to do what?" Acrecius stared at him, his chair shoved behind him against the wall. Athena's frescoed hip bore the marks of his temper, her blue tunic pale and cracked.
Iphicles stood behind the table in the council room, knuckles stretched white over the back of his own chair. He'd only thrown it once, but the solid wood under his fingers made him feel powerful enough to win the argument. "You heard me. Find a potter in town who needs an apprentice and set something up for Vercingetorix."
"I can't do that. Not after all the trouble I took to keep him a secret. People will talk."
"Why? I'm not forcing anyone to take him. Just find an opening and set it up."
"In a room with a discreet back entrance, I suppose," Acrecius said, with a disdainful sniff. "The whole city will know in minutes."
"You know, my motives are really none of your fucking business."
"You're wrong, Iphicles. Everything you do is my business, especially now, with this threat hanging over us. And setting up this whore in the middle of Corinth...How're you going to keep the men's respect if you're sniffing after some foreign pretty-boy, especially now, with war coming?"
"Caesar has legions of whores, and no one cares."
"You're not exactly Caesar, are you?" Acrecius said it with a ghastly smile, all taut lips and large, ivory teeth.
He deserved that for whining like a ten-year old, and decided to take Acrecius' advice about acting royal. "Maybe not, but I *am* king, and this is an order, not a request. Do it, or I'll find someone who will." Maybe it was time to cut the aprons strings with Jason and get his whip- wielding nanny his own gig, like maybe in a Spartan prison. After they resolved the conflict with Caesar, he'd see about replacing Acrecius with one of his own men.
"At least send him to train for battle."
Iphicles pictured Tori living in the barracks once his secret got out--and it would. Only a miracle had saved his ass on the way back from Rome. Acrecius must've kept him very close. "No. Find him a job in the city by the end of the week."
"What's with you and this boy, anyway? One night with him and you're ready to gamble with your reputation? It's not the time for it. You need all the support you can get. The men are only beginning to trust you again after what happened with Ajax. We can't afford a rebellion now, not with a war coming."
Cheap shot. One screw-up, and Acrecius never let him forget it, wielding it for emotional blackmail whenever Iphicles tried to gain a little autonomy. "Do it," he said, and walked out.
His steward was hovering in the corridor, his sandal tapping nervously against the mosaic underfoot. "The others are waiting for you in the great hall, your Highness. The food's getting cold."
"I'm not in the mood. Send some up to my room, enough for two. Set it up on the balcony. And bring Vercingetorix there, too. I'm going to bathe first, and I want it ready by the time I'm finished."
As Phineus hurried off, keys jangling, Acrecius stepped out from behind Iphicles. "The court needs to see you now, Iphicles. And not like last night, when you staggered into the hall reeking of come and wine. They need to know you're not scared."
"You know what, Acrecius? I am scared. I don't want to die. That's why we're having these meetings every day: to figure out how to avoid it." His turn to tap his foot against the yellow stones of the Golden Fleece. "And they might need me, but for once, I need some space, so leave me the fuck alone."
"It's that boy's fault," Acrecius said, shaking his grey head. "He's a distraction. At least with Ares, you had a respectable lover. He made you look strong--"
Good thing there wasn't a chair handy. "I wasn't fucking Ares to be respectable. I was fucking Ares because it was wrong and dirty and pissed off my brother. And because he has a huge cock and knows how to use it." Acrecius' face went old, then blank. "So don't talk to me about respectability. What I'm feeling has nothing to do with him or with Vercingetorix. Remember Jason? Remember how he used to drink his face off every night? You know why he did it? Because this place is a cage. I know people need me, but if I'm going to stay sane, I need...Oh, forget it. You're never going to get it. Every time we have this conversation, you give me your 'all the king's duties' speech, and I do what you want. Not this time. I'll play the good king tomorrow."
"Tomorrow, we could all be dead and--"
"I know, I know. I don't need the Greek chorus of doom. Tomorrow we may be picking spear heads from our hearts and purple feathers from our asses. But tonight I'm going to bathe, eat lots of rich food, and fuck a beautiful boy, whether you like it or not."
"I'll make your excuses to the others, then," Acrecius said, tight-lipped, and headed downstairs.
With Acrecius tugging the guilt chain, Iphicles almost followed him. Maybe it really was the wrong time to find his backbone. It just seemed like he'd spent his whole life taking it up the ass, and if he gave in now to Acrecius, he'd have to give in to Caesar, too. Tonight, he needed a break, and he was taking it. A full night, with no complications, no interruptions. Then he'd play the good king until Caesar slit his throat.
"You been here long?"
Tori sat at a table placed beside the short marble rail, staring at the skyline. "It's okay," he said. "I don't mind waiting. You're the king."
Uncomplicated, Iphicles thought again, as he took the second chair. It was such a relief after... "Help yourself to the food. It's just you and me here. Oh, wait. Your hands. Do you need help? Did my physician give you anything?"
"My hands are all right. He put some ointment on them, and they're a lot better."
"I sorry you had to go through that in the first place," he said, peeling an apple. "We're on the brink of war with Rome, and everyone's overreacting. Not a great excuse, but it's all I can give you."
Tori twisted in his chair. "Don't worry about it."
"Is something wrong?"
Then he knew. "It's Acrecius, isn't it? That interfering prick. What did he say to you?"
"Nothing I haven't heard before. Really, King Iphicles, don't worry about it." But his hand shook as he poured some wine.
"Did he touch you?"
"No, nothing like that."
"But he threatened you, right? Probably told you to stay away from me or else?"
He nodded. "I told him what you said about how we wouldn't see each other once I got the job, but he didn't believe me."
"I'll take care him. Look, I'm sorry. He's not himself lately. None of us are. But maybe we'll find you a job in a different city. You can start a new life there, without worrying that we'll be dropping by. Can we just forget about that for now, and eat?"
Tori looked at him full-on. "I wish you'd been the one to find me, instead of Caesar. I wish... Lots of stupid things." He ate a slice of tomato, and began to talk about the sunsets in Gaul.
Iphicles ate his apple and thought about how he shouldn't fuck Tori tonight. It was nice just being here like this, eating and watching the sun melt into the hill, not thinking about war and death. Besides, maybe he was using Tori in his own way, as an escape. Maybe Acrecius was right.
"What are you thinking about?" Tori asked.
"I'm thinking how much I'd like to be inside you right now." So much for good intentions.
"I'd like that, too." He reached over and touched his hand.
Iphicles fucked him on the balcony, just pulled Tori onto his lap, tossed aside the cloth covering him under the tunic, and slid his cock home. When the light faded to a few dull pink smears, he took Tori inside and fucked him on the cool linen sheets, until Caesar and Ares melted away like the sun.
In the morning, a scout announced that another Roman ship was headed to the harbor, carrying a declaration of war. No one could confirm the rumor, so in the meantime the Corinthian council met to finalize their battle plans.
"This waiting's killing me," Menander said, scratching a bright right pimple on his chin. "I can't sleep, and I can guide sailors with this thing here." He pointed to the offending blemish. "I'm like a kid again. Ianthe's ready to leave me. I wish she would, then at least she'd be safe. Damn fool woman."
Diomedes nodded. "This is the worst part, and I think Caesar's doing it on purpose, so we'll panic and do something stupid. It's important that we stick together and stay calm."
The others all clanked their sword butts against the floor in agreement, and Iphicles stood up to speak. "I know I haven't been the best--"
"This is all my fault." Acrecius' growl silenced the room.
"Then you'd better put a bowl on your head so we can give you a Roman cut."
A few men chuckled at Diomedes' crack, but most stared at the old man in confusion, until Callinus spoke. "That's bullshit," he said, hitting the table with his open palm. "I was with you in Rome. You did everything you could to prevent this."
"Here, here." Menander clapped his hands. "It's not your fault Caesar wasn't satisfied. The man wanted our blood. We all did everything we could."
Acrecius leaned forward, gripping the table's edge. "You don't understand. I sat next to Caesar in the banqueting hall, night after night. I should've killed him. I had the chance. I even thought about it. But I didn't. I thought about my wife, my beautiful Elena, and I didn't want her to bury an assassin. And now my city, where I've spent my whole life, where my children live, where my wife lives... It's all going to be burned to the ground, and it's my fault."
Stunned, Iphicles saw Acrecius' eyes fill with tears and jumped in. "If this is anyone's fault, it's mine. I could've given in to him. Maybe there's still time..."
"No," Acrecius said. "You did the right thing. This is our land, and we can't give it to that power-hungry bastard just because he asks."
For a second, Iphicles said nothing. Then: "Okay, so it's not your fault, and it's not mine. It's Caesar's. So let's get down to business and make sure Diomedes' attack plan has no holes. I'm still worried about the front-left side of the phalanx; I think it means we're vulnerable to attack by a small troop on horseback." He turned to Menander, who was already on his feet, waiting his instructions, his round nose pointed toward the door. "Send off another series of scrolls to Athens and Sparta, and make clear this time that if they don't join us, they'll be speaking Latin in a few months' time, while they watch their daughters suck Roman cock. And send a messenger off to Gaul so we can find my damn brother." The men's approving sounds comforted him. So what if he needed Herc's help? His pride couldn't save anyone, but Herc could. It was time to move on. "Let's do this. We can beat that Roman bastard."
He wondered if anyone believed him.
The meeting lasted until well after dark, but Iphicles didn't cancel the feast. Instead, he ordered Phineus to bring up the extra caskets of wine from the cellar, good stuff left over from Aeson's reign; to borrow a dozen extra musicians from the mayor's household to keep the energy level high; and to tell each of the palace entertainers to perform during the feast.
So while the court sat at tables to eat orange-stuffed peacock, wild boar with rosemary, leeks sauteed with garlic butter, quail eggs seasoned with pepper, and a thousand other dishes, jugglers moved past them, tossing red and green clay balls so high they nearly smashed against the painted face of Zeus, who stared down indifferently from the ceiling. They avoided the actors in their gold masks, who performed Aristophanes' bawdiest scenes, encouraging the audience to act out their favourite lines. In between the tall columns, a few people did, their frenzied movements matching the music that rang through the hall.
Iphicles opened the meal with a speech, and spent the rest of the evening drinking and talking. He avoided Tori, who'd come at his request, and sat with the councilmen's sons, but watched him protectively when no one was looking. He seemed happy enough, eating a handful of grapes and talking to Leonidas, Callinus' youngest son, a quiet fourteen-year old with his father's solid build. When Iphicles looked over after a game of dice with Diomedes and Callinus that had cost him twenty gold coins and his first-born child, through the smoke from the hundreds of candles now burned low, Tori had vanished, so Iphicles went with the others to soak in the hot spring.
Drunk, they headed across the courtyard under the yellow moon, swapping dirty jokes and dropping clothes along the way. Callinus, who paused to piss into the fountain, shook his long cock, and with one foot on the marble rim, proudly declared that, "Caesar might rule half the known world, but I can tell you, no Roman dick can match Greek for size!"
"We'll use 'em instead of spears," Diomedes shouted back, grabbing his own. "That'll scare the bastards off." Running at Callinus, about to mock-attack him, Diomedes stopped short. "Holy shit! That's it! We'll add a line of spear-throwers to the front-left side of the phalanx. That'll keep the Roman cavalry from a side attack, just like you were worried about. C'mon, Callinus. You're the best spear-thrower I know, and you can help me ready this new division." He was already grabbing his discarded tunic and sandals.
"I'll help you," Iphicles said. "Just tell me what to do."
"No way. You're the one who pointed out the problem, so you take it easy tonight. Have a soak, then get laid. We need you well-rested for tomorrow."
With low bows, the two men took off. Iphicles, standing half-drunk and naked in the courtyard, stared after them. When the wind picked up, he decided to forge ahead to the baths. Tori was probably asleep, and he could use a good soak. Tunic tied at his waist, Iphicles headed south to the Roman-style bathhouse, the most recent addition to the palace complex and built over a hot spring once open to the air.
To enter it, he passed beneath a portico supported by caryatids, which led to an anteroom. There, in the flickering light, Actaeon ran along the left wall, horns springing from his forehead, chased by his hunting dogs, while on the right, Leucippus died for Daphne's love. Iphicles followed Actaeon until he reached the staircase at the room's centre, then grabbed an oil lamp from the wall, before heading downstairs. He felt the heat even before reaching the bottom, hot sticky breaths of it that dampened his skin. By the time he reached the end of the narrow corridor, his body was covered in sweat.
Once inside the main room, he dropped his tunic and hung the lamp beside the door, where it swung, tossing shadows over the room. Ahead, the steam rose thick above the square green pool, nearly obscuring the statue of Artemis who stood guard along the west wall. His feet kicked up water as he walked down the smooth steps, and the splashes whispered against the glistening walls. The water soon warmed him as he settled down on the bottom step, submerged to the waist. Odd to be here alone, in the funereal quiet, without his men joking nearby, or grunting with pleasure as servants rubbed them with oil.
When it turned too hot to think, Iphicles floated on sensation and felt the day's tension seep away. At last, nearly asleep, he kicked off the step and swam to the other side, along the wall, finally stopping at the north side, the world a green haze. No stairs here, so he groped for the ledge, blinking away the water, and touched...a leather boot.
Startled, he jerked his head up, eyes flying open, and saw Ares towering over him. His body reacted before his mind caught up, which made it even worse. But Ares always had that effect on him. "You bastard," he said, and dove under the water, heading back to the steps, barely able to breathe. Looking straight ahead, Iphicles climbed from the water and went to pick up his tunic, but Ares stepped in his way.
"We need to talk."
"There's nothing to talk about."
"There's going to be a war."
"Is that part of your job description, announcing wars to the losers? Well, I hate to break the news to you, but I know about the war. What the hell do you think we've been doing here all these months? Oh, wait, I forgot. You haven't been here, too busy betraying your people to stick your cock in that Roman scumbag. Now would you get the fuck out of my way?" Iphicles focused on a shiny patch of wall over Ares' shoulder and mentally itemized all the reasons why Ares should be tortured for an eternity in Tartarus. When he finished awhile later, Ares hadn't moved. "I'm sorry. Maybe your Greek's getting rusty. Should I say it in Latin? Would that help?" Except that he couldn't remember the Latin words for 'move, you fucking asshole,' which only made him madder. "Out of my way," he said and pushed him. Nothing happened. "Fine. Fuck the clothes." But when he tried to pass him, Ares moved, blocking the doorway.
"I want you," Ares said.
The punch landed on the god's jaw, but it was like hitting a statue. "Hanging out with Caesar's obviously scrambled your brain," he said, sucking his bruised knuckles. "Wait a couple of days, then you can fuck my dead body. That's the only way you'll be touching me--unless you plan to use force. Is that something Caesar taught you? Are you that far gone?"
"We both know I wouldn't have to force you. I never have. Not even the first time."
"That was different. I'm different. I only fucked you then to get back at Hercules." One perk of kingship: it taught you how to lie. "I knew he'd hate it, and he did."
"But *you* didn't hate it. You loved it."
"You've had a thousand years of practice."
"Why are you fighting me? You know it's going to happen. You're wasting time I could spend inside you."
"You're not getting it, Ares. I don't want you. How many times do I have to say it? I don't want you."
"Prove it. One kiss. If you can walk away after that, I'll let you go. That's the only way you're getting out of here." When he hesitated, Ares smiled. "Unless you're afraid."
"I'm not afraid. I told you that you mean nothing to me, and I don't want to play your stupid games. I played them for months, but it's over now. You made it over. Why can't you believe me?"
"Because I know you."
"Fine. You want proof that I don't care? Kiss me." Iphicles closed his eyes and thought about Rena, lying in her coffin. The worst time in his life. The worst. When Ares' arms circled his neck, he remembered the humiliation when Hercules caught him using his name, Rena's face when she found out. When Ares' soft lips pressed against his, the beard, soft too, like cat's against his cheeks, he remembered his mother's delighted laugh whenever Herc walked into the room, and how her smile would fade a little when he did. When Ares' tongue, impossibly hot and tasting like apples, slid into his mouth, he remembered his father walking out one day and not coming back, how he waited months for him to come home, putting the lamp in the window every night, but forgetting once, and sure afterward that his dad never came home because he missed their house in the dark.
But when Ares' fingers wound in his hair, that big muscular body grinding into his, that tongue searching, knowing, his own sucked lightly into that hot mouth, Iphicles gave up... Until he pictured his men, his people, laying dead in a blackened field. "I can't do this," he said, "no matter what I feel," and shoved Ares back. "Unless you want to cut a new deal."
"You want to fuck me? Then let me beat Caesar, and I'll do whatever you want."
"I can't do that, Iphicles."
"You mean you won't." He touched his bruised lips. "You're going to let us all die because of him."
"It's too late now. It's...complicated."
"No, it's not. You're betraying us because you're in love with him, or obsessed with him, or whatever it is you have instead of real feelings. That's not complicated at all."
"That's what you think?
"What am I supposed to think? You fuck me for months, and it's amazing. I was so sure...Look, just get out of my way, okay?"
"So sure of what?"
His breath hissed out, and he sucked in another hot lungful. "That you loved it as much as I did. I mean, I didn't think that right away. But in the last month... I don't know. It got even more intense. Then you left and never came back. Until now. Is this some kind of pity fuck because I'm dying?"
"We're all dying, Iphicles."
"Not you. You'll be around forever." At his words, Ares' face took on a sudden desperate blankness, and Iphicles grabbed his arm above the bracer. "What's going on?"
"There are rumors on Olympus. The Fates started them. They say... They say that the end is coming. That the Olympians' time is nearly over. And without worshippers, we die." He clipped each word, like they hurt. "So I made a deal."
"I don't understand."
"I made a deal with Caesar."
"What could he possibly offer you?" When Ares said nothing, it hit him, a fist to the gut. "He's set you up as the new god Mars. He's going to make them all worship you, the Romans, the Gauls, the barbarians. And in return, you're going to fuck him and only him, support him and only him. So you won't die."
"It's a necessary sacrifice."
"What is? Your honor? You know, Hercules was right about you all along. I defended you to him, you know. Told him no matter what he thought, you weren't with me to get to him. That you'd explained this, and I believed you, because you've got some weird code of honor that you'd sometimes let me see. Like with not forcing me, or anyone else. This sounds crazy, but I actually respected you. Now I know for sure that you're a coward and a whore."
The blow knocked Iphicles into the pool and the water smacked his bare back before sucking him to the bottom. For a long moment, he lay there, looking up through green darkness, then closed his eyes--only his swelling heart forced him to the surface, and he stood up to his neck, gasping to an empty room.
Acrecius stared down at him, ashen-faced. "Wake up, your Highness. The scroll just came in. We're going to war. He's called it for midday on the field just east of the city, where we celebrated the Dionysia last year. It doesn't give us much time, but now he's saying we should've known, with his ships in the harbor."
"Shit," Iphicles said, and swung his legs to the floor. "I really hope the Fates have something truly vicious in store for him." He flung open the wardrobe and began pulling out his armor, tossing it onto the bed. "Have Diomedes move the troops there now, and then the rest of us will meet up with him there. We need to stick to the plan, which means the rest of the council riding in together."
"Iphicles, I think you should stay here. Caesar won't be on the field, and you shouldn't be, either. Diomedes knows what to do and--"
"Fuck that. You really think I'd stay here while you all fight for me?"
Acrecius gave a small smile. "No, but it was worth a try. You always did like to jump in with both feet. Now get dressed and let's go these Romans how real men fight. I'll see you in the courtyard shortly."
"If you leave without me, I'll cut off your balls."
"Don't worry. It'd be an honor to ride into battle with you." And he left.
The armor was heavy and stiff, and Iphicles struggled with the greaves, which refused to close properly. He nearly called a servant, but got the clasp to close at the last minute. By the time he pulled on the bronze cuirass, sweat ran his face, and he swatted it away before tugging on the helmet. "Ready," he announced to no one, and walked to the door. The extra weight made him feel secure, confident, and he let himself imagine slaughtering the Romans today, the story sung through the ages of Corinthian defeating the mighty Rome. The vision carried him into the hallway and down the main staircase to the first-floor landing. About to go on, flying now, he remembered Tori, and decided the others could wait another minute. Even now, or maybe especially now, it was important to stay human, something Ares or Caesar would never understand.
But the door to Tori's room stood open, the room empty. The bed was made, the corners neatly folded, and Iphicles understood that Tori hadn't slept there last night, that he'd followed Acrecius' command and left. He offered a small prayer to Hermes, then another to Rena, and went to meet his men in the courtyard. When Iphicles stepped out into the sun, the riders cheered.
"Not a bad day to die," Callinus said, fierce in his visor, as Iphicles mounted his horse.
"Tell that to the Romans," he replied, grabbing the reigns. "We're going to live, and make Caesar regret the day he was born." He raised his fist high, and, as the men shouted their approval, dug his heels into his horse's side. "To victory!"
Only an asphodel-covered hill stood between them and the Festival Field when Iphicles heard his name called. Turning, he saw Callinus' son Leonidas, armed and surprisingly impressive on a black war horse. He reigned in his horse, letting the boy catch up to him. "Come to wish me luck?"
Leonidas shook his head. "I need to talk to you."
"This isn't the time," Acrecius told him. "It can wait."
"No, this is important. I need to speak to King Iphicles. I have a gift for him." Leonidas' square jaw stuck out, and he looked just like his father.
"It's okay," Iphicles said. "I could use a good luck charm today."
"We'll ride ahead then. Hurry and follow us."
When Acrecius and the others left, the boy rode closer to Iphicles. "You know that Tori left, right?"
"Oh, so that's what this is about. Don't worry. He'll be fine. I doubt he's coming anywhere near the battle."
"I know that. He's heading back to Gaul. But last night, he asked me to give you this." Leonidas handed over Caesar's ring. "He said to tell you that you owed Caesar a gift, and as a gesture, should send wine to his troops. He said you'd know what that meant."
"I do," he said, and grinned, as his own words came back to him. ‘I was happier when he was a case of poisoned wine.' "Now here's what I want you to do..." Minutes later, Leonidas was on his way to arrange the delivery of a case of poisoned wine to the Roman fleet, Caesar's ring tight on his finger. About to spur his horse, Iphicles paused when the air charged.
"Let's go," Ares said, appearing on a massive black horse, his sword drawn. "I'm in the mood for a good fight."
"You came to the right place," Iphicles told him. Under the cuirass, his heart was doing something fast and uneven, and he couldn't stop smiling. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"You're doing it, aren't you? That poisoned wine trick is brilliant, but it won't help you today."
"Caesar will never forgive you. You know that, right? What that means?" Like somehow Ares couldn't understand that riding with him meant death, Ares, who'd nearly given up everything to stay immortal.
"It's not Caesar I care about."
As they crested the hill, Iphicles touched Ares' arm, then together they rode onto the field.