"We battle on in words, as always, mere words, and what's the cure? We cannot find a thing." --Homer, The Odyssey
It is winter in Ionia. I breathe through the open window, rain sweet with drunk earth and drowned hyacinth. Only that's wrong because Hyacinthus didn't drown. Zephyrus hissed a jealous gust and sent Apollo's discus under his lover's eye. Now they worship him at Amyclae, heaping purple flowers on a marble tomb briny with divine tears. Tragic love, perfectly colored by eros and thanatos, the dream of a muse-abandoned poet.
I'll recite it on Arestheria and vanquish my audience. Ares won't notice the slight. He never appears at his own festival, too busy slaughtering men and drinking their blood, torturing them for his pleasure. Only the councillor Timaeus might object since his son is fighting in the Lelantine War and he wants to appease Ares with a naive gullibility. Everyone knows what the war god is like. I made sure they knew by telling the story of Troy's fall, of ugly war's rule by chaos, panic and fear, the sons of Ares. He's the worst, pain and death, goading men when reason sets in and they slow the bloodletting. I'll happily sing about immortal love despite him. To spite him. Besides, the head councillor Callinus appreciates the fame I bring the city and won't complain, not with his sister's family slain during the Messenian War, the same war that killed my father.
After the festival, I'll celebrate like last year with a soft-skinned boy who will lead me by the hand from the theater. In my room, on abraded sheets, he'll lick me for thirty nights under a Selenean moon while a sleepy cicada sings from my attic. During the day, I'll teach his worshipful mouth another skill--but not too well. I'm barely twenty-five, too young to lose my status to a neophyte. No, I'll fill him with my seed, with a few lessons in rhetoric and meter, then send him to his mother because he'll never know what I know. He wasn't born with my gifts, not my tongue or the blind eyes that let me know everything just by leaning from this window into the wintry blackness.
I breathe, and I know.
I saw Ilium burn from here, watched its cloudy towers blacken with Greek fire, smelled the searing Phlegethonian smoke, heard Achilles' shout when his dying lover splashed into bloody mire, touched the bronze center of Ajax's seven-layered shield, knew the women's despair when the bones of their husbands and sons became landmarks on charred Trojan soil.
My room is the center of the world, warm with the fire old Domicles lights every morning. I leave only to sing at the festivals; otherwise, I stay here at my window inventing history. I'm not a hermit or unhappy: in the summer, Domicles takes me into the fenced garden behind the house where I sit shrouded in the gloom of an oak my grandfather planted, one hand outstretched to stroke the plaque that marks his son's empty grave. War ate my father, while my mother faded like Echo and we buried her beside him. Sometimes I roll onto my stomach and nuzzle through grass and flowers with tight pearled heads to press my cheek against the marble where my father doesn't lie.
Before he died, my grandfather would sit on an old wooden bench and tell me about Troy. His voice cracked with age, he'd remember the past in fragments, not just bits and pieces of stories, but bodies, too. No one was whole, not even the great heroes. Odysseus lost the flesh on his right forearm, leaving a gash like a shark bite; Agamemnon, the small toe on his left foot, which let Clytemnestra catch him faster when he returned home; Nestor, the tip of his aristocratic nose, so his helmet never stayed in place.
As he drank with noisy slurps from a mug always full of cardamom-spiced wine, my grandfather would cry. "You're lucky you're blind," he'd say. "You don't have to see what those Trojans did to us. What the gods did to us. What Ares did." And he'd rant about Ares, about looking up to see the god of war standing beside Hector, protecting him, slicing open the Archive army, never for honor, only for lust.
When the rain stops, I go outside and the afternoon passes while my dead grandfather speaks to me. By the coolness of sunset I have a dozen verses in perfect hexameter. I stay until dew wets my cheek and ants march ticklishly over my hand, until I'm breathing the sharp silver smell of stars, the same stars that Menelaus saw when like a lion he led the Argive troops against the princes of Ilium. Then I call Domicles, while night birds cry overhead, and he leads me back inside, up the twisting stairs to my room where I dream of war's end, when Ares is dead, the towers of Ilium stand tall and pure white, and the Argive army is whole.
I am Homer, and I will live forever.
This is how I begin my hymn to Hyacinthus, with this reminder of who I am, and who I will always be. That's the purpose of poetry, to define us, keep us safe, and teach us the rules of history. Rustles of linen as the crowd settles before me in the amphitheater behind Ares' temple, whispers of admiration before I even start. Domicles shaved me, then curled my hair, which is sweet with scented oil from Phoenicia. My tunic, pinned at each shoulder with a lion-shaped brooch, falls in rigid pleats to my thighs, which are slim and smooth. My festival lovers always praise them and open them delicately before adoring me with their tongue.
As I sing, my lyre low and river-smooth, a stiffness grows between my legs. I haven't touched myself in weeks, saving it all for tonight, so my new lover can drink from me again and again, living off my seed through the night and for the month that I own him.
No one speaks now, breathing in unified desire as Apollo unclothes Hyacinthus and oils him. My song slows here, lingering like the god's hands on his lover's shoulders, his nipples, the line of his back, then picks up, the meter tightening as Apollo rubs his naked body against the boy's until they are slick and gleaming. To my left, someone growls with pleasure, a rough scratchy sound, and I sing to him, telling how the god cannot take his eyes from Hyacinthus, how he neglects his duties even now to be with him, to play this game with him, this discus-throwing.
When my story climaxes and Apollo makes the fatal toss, the man near me whispers, "Yes."
That's when I know that this is a god, Apollo, here to crown me for my song, to make me divine. I breathe for confirmation and smell something new, like myrrh mixed with blood and oranges. Ambrosia.
As Hyacinthus dies, penetrated by hard bronze, my voice soars and swells, an ocean, a storm, all for Apollo, the muses' father, light and golden reason. He will cover me in oil and laurel, and I will love him with my poetry until he forgets time and remembers only me. Then Apollo will feed me ambrosia and heal my blind eyes, so that I will finally see the sun as we ride through the heavens in his chariot.
My song ends with Hyacinthus reborn, petals colored like his hair, each signed with Apollo's favor, the mourning "AI AI" that only lovers can see. While the audience cheers, I wait, knowing like Tiresias how the night will unfold. Apollo, disguised as a beautiful boy, will lead me home and only then reveal himself, marveling at my skill before he venerates my body.
"Divine," the head councillor says. Callinus is the highest born so it's his shaky old man's hands that crown me with laurel. This close, he smells of lamb and lentil stew, goat's cheese, while under that lurks the riper smell of decay. "You honor us again."
"Yes," adds Timaeus, "like listening to Apollo himself." His nails crunch through his scalp as he scratches. "Good thing you're blind, though, and will never see action on the battlefield. Don't think Ares will enjoy being replaced by Apollo, not on Arestheria, the day we pay him tribute."
Callinus shifts, sandals scuffing the tiles. "But Ares isn't here, as usual, just every citizen and a few hundred more from all over Ionia and beyond. Besides, we sacrificed to Ares, a hundred bulls, an expensive sacrifice to a god who ignores us."
"You think it's an accident that we defeated the Chalcidians--"
"This isn't the time," Callinus firmly tells him. "Embrace Homer and congratulate him on helping us establish our reputation as a cultural center, so he can go reap his reward."
I endure Timaeus' bear-hug, his rough beard as it scrapes my cheeks, then step back. "I'm ready." Warm fingers enclose mine. A god's hand.
"This is Arion," Callinus says. "He's yours for the month. His parents are very excited that you'll be teaching him your art. They're vintners, and want to honor the god with a poem at the next Dionysia." He leans close to me. "You should see him, Homer. He's as beautiful as you are, a young Apollo."
The false Arion tugs my hand, and we walk slowly together from the stadium. As we move, the audience, still cheering, tosses flowers that bounce against me in bursts of perfume. I smile and wave, tilting up my chin so the dying sun reflects off my face and leaves them with a vision nearly vivid as my words. Then the dank coolness of a corridor slides over me, the passageway through Ares' temple that will take us to the street.
"I know who you are, Apollo," I say proudly, squeezing the god's hand, a hand that killed the Python who terrorized our ancestors, that gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy, that played the lyre with Marsyas, that pulled Asclepius from the smoking womb of his mother.
He says nothing, probably distracted by the ripe rotting stench of sacrificial blood flooding the air as we enter the temple proper. I'm sure he's waiting, too, for the right moment to acknowledge my offering to him, so I stay quiet as Narcissus until he slows in what feels like the room's center. That's when I hear the rumble of stone against stone, thunder-loud as the doors crash shut.
"It's Ares," I say. "It has to be." I'm not scared. Apollo will protect me.
"You're right," he replies. "It is Ares." He drops my hand and waves of fiery heat billow over me.
I know he's changing, assuming his true form. Does Ares have his sword drawn somewhere ahead of us? That's why Apollo is shifting? "What's going on?" Without his hand, I'm lost, vulnerable. I hate it, but there's nowhere for me to go. "Where is he?"
"Right beside you."
"I don't understand." The panic hits with an orgasm's rush, right before the knowledge does. "You're the only one..."
"Not as smart as you think," he says, not quiet now, his voice scraped and deep, faintly disgusting, perverse as a backward running stream.
"I'm blind," I tell him. "I can't fight you."
"But I can fight you."
There's amusement under the comment, and I relax just as his fist smashes into my stomach, then reel drunkenly before the wall catches me hard, breaking one of my lion brooches. The left side of my tunic droops while I huddle on the floor against the sharp heat flaming from my belly, my bruised shoulder. His leather boots suck the stone as he strides toward me, and I duck, but he grabs my chin, then smacks me hard across the cheek. My head cracks against the stone, and I melt to the floor, overwhelmed by starry pain.
Ares nudges me with his boot. "Get up." When I don't move, he kicks my hip. "I said get up. Remember who I am."
I want to beg, but I know this god. He's an animal, a mindless pig with death in his veins. When I feel his fingers digging into my hips, lifting me without effort, I tell him this, what he is.
His laugh is stripped to sarcasm. "I've heard it all before, you useless little prick."
"So why are you here? Why does it matter what I think?"
"It doesn't matter," Ares says, holding my wrists together behind my back. "And that's why I'm here. Because you don't matter, and you need to know that. You have no purpose, no meaning. You're nothing."
He pushes me into the wall, and I turn my head so my nose won't break. My arms crossed behind me are fiercely tied, and there's a stinging pull at my shoulder joints. I wait for the sword to pin me here, so I can die like Odius, chief of the Halizonians, when Agamemnon pierced him in the back on the field at Troy. Was Odius shaking like this? I suppose not, since it happened quickly for him. A metallic whistle in the air, then he's under the crushing wheels of his own chariot. My death's even less noble, to be killed by the lowest of the Twelve, the runt, the one even his own family hates.
When I offer Hades a prayer, asking for a place under the trees in the Fortunate Woods, the shrill clank of metal on metal cuts me off. Death has come for me. A deep catching breath, then I say it: "Kill me, Ares. I'm ready."
"I'm not going to kill you now. I've got plans for you first." Gripping my sore shoulder, he presses the tip of his sword at the back of my neck, then slowly moves it down.
My ruined tunic falls, and I start to struggle, but he holds me with a startling strength. "You can't do this," I tell him.
He presses against me, and his clothes are gone. He's much taller than I imagined, his body lean and muscular. When he bends down to speak again, his hair glides over my cheek, surprisingly long and soft, smelling of honey and spice. The beauty of it distracts me from what's going to happen, makes it unreal, a verse from a love song, but his hardness reminds me as it pushes between my cheeks. There's oil somehow, and I should be grateful he doesn't take me cold, doesn't rip me open, but when he starts to push, that's how it feels, like an old cloth being torn in two.
Behind me, Ares grunts, and suddenly my hands aren't behind my back anymore but over my head, wrists still bound. "Better," he says, as I claw the marble, and thrusts deep.
It hurts. Oh god. There's no poetry in it, no beauty, just a terrible sharp pain like birth or death, something you're not meant to know. I'm whimpering now as he settles into me, grotesquely huge like the animal he is. "This only proves what you are," I tell him, spitting the words. The pain wavers as he pulls back, then slams forward with his new thrust.
"What's that?" He bites the side of my neck, shaking his head like a wolf before letting go.
"Pain. Violence. Cruelty. Rape."
Ares laughs again, like it's what he wants to hear, and again draws to the edge until he's barely in me, while I brace myself. But he doesn't ram back in this time, just holds himself there for so long that my tensed muscles scream and I have to relax.
"You have a great ass," he whispers in my ear. "I don't fuck that many virgins, and I forget how tight an unfucked ass is."
Still he doesn't move, just starts licking my neck with long feline laps.
"Why not?" He does it some more, then reaches around and brushes his thumb over my right nipple. The second time he does this, my nipple stiffens, and he moves in slows circles over it, still licking me.
I force my muscles tight again when I feel him sliding into me, and expect rage. Instead, he uses both thumbs now, one on each nipple, and licks not only my neck, but my shoulders, too. All the pain's gone now, which makes it wrong, warm and sweet when he's raping me. I try to back away, but he's a wall, a hot, slick, hard wall, and there's nothing I can do except beg him to stop touching me.
He's found a rhythm, a subtle one I don't understand in a new language I don't want to learn, but Ares makes me, not thrusting anymore, just gliding with a precision I'd admire anywhere else. Not here, though, not when it's bringing this relentless warmth, not when I have to flatten myself against the marble so he won't know.
"How come you're ignoring my questions?" The timber in his voice has shifted, become less planed, more primitive, because he likes this, likes torturing me with that stiff, thick heat, these plaguing questions.
"I just want you to stop." My own voice is infected now.
"Really? Because I'm starting to think you like my cock inside you." He tugs on my nipples, flicks his nails over them, and bends to suck wetly the curve of my shoulder, and one of his curls slides over my mouth.
I don't lick it, but my lips taste sweet afterward, and I wonder what he tastes like... "No."
He's moving a little faster now, and my body won't close anymore but stays open for him. There's so much heat that I'm sweating, his chest sticking to my damp back when he pulls back to take me even deeper. There are noises, too: the slick wet sound of his oiled skin entering me, the panting breaths he takes, and worst of all, the gasps I can't stop that border on moans.
"You know," he says, and curls his tongue around my earlobe, "what would make this even better? Not that fucking your sweet virgin ass isn't good. But there's something I like my lovers to do."
"I'm not your lover."
Ares pries me from the wall, and my swollen flesh springs up. He takes me in his hand and starts stroking to the meter of his thrusts. "What I like," he continues, "is when my lovers say my name."
"I'd rather die," I say, trying to hide the quiver that's spreading everywhere.
"Really? Feels like you'd rather come in my hand."
When he squeezes me for emphasis, I cry out and my legs quiver. I'm going to lose this war if I don't do something. "Zeus." My voice cracks, so I try again. "Zeus hates you. Everyone hates you, and that will never change, not in a thousand years." He's gone and I'm empty so suddenly I'm sliding down to the floor, missing his heaviness, too startled for relief.
It sets in just as he grabs me and walks a few short paces. I feel him sit, then he places my bound arms around his neck in the mockery of an embrace and eases me down onto him until I'm full again. His fingers close over my hips and he forces me to ride him, my face barely inches from his. Every time he lowers me, every time he raises me, I slide against his stomach in the wetness I'm trailing there.
"You should see your face," he growls. "I should open the doors and let everyone see you loving my cock."
I open my mouth to deny it and his tongue's there, tasting me, licking away the words. Even my thoughts undo, so I'm completely open to him, and he knows, he knows and frees my wrists so I can hold his head and kiss him back. The worst part is that I don't realize I'm free, but believe up until the end that he's making me. The same with his name. I don't even know I'm saying it, moaning it, as I writhe whorishly over him, not while his seed's flooding me and mine's soaking him.
After, though, it comes back to me like a lost echo, and I climb off him, then stand there, unsure where to go. I feel the wetness on my legs as his semen spills from me, but I have nothing to wipe it away. "Where are my clothes?"
"Where you left them."
"I can't see," I remind him. "Help me."
Hating him, I take a step forward with my hands outstretched.
"Wrong way," he says.
"Just tell me where they are."
"I'm not your nursemaid."
I half-turn and reach out with my right foot, but there's only open tile. "At least tell me which way I should go."
"Why? You've been here before. You know the layout. Figure it out for yourself."
Tears build behind my eyes and my fists clench. "I never paid attention. This is stupid. I can't see."
"You're boring me."
"So send me home. The punishment's over."
That laugh again. "It hasn't even started."
"What are you talking about?"
"What kind of punishment makes you come? No, I'm keeping you with me for the month, so you pay back the respect you took from me. Then you can go home."
Furious, I lunge toward his voice but trip over something and tumble down. The jolt bumps my teeth into my tongue, and blood seeps into my mouth. "You can't do that." I lash out and my fist catches solid stone--the base of his throne. My knuckle splits, and I suck on it, hating him, one arm wrapped around my knees.
"I can do whatever I want. Who's going to stop me? You think anyone gives a shit about you? Sure, you can sing a pretty song and flash your pretty blind face, but you don't matter to them. They've already left, gone home to get drunk and fuck their wives or play with their kids. You're already history."
"There's no point explaining things to you. You'll never understand about poetry, about--"
"I don't give a shit about poetry," he says. "The only point is to show me tribute. Now get your ass up here and worship me." As he hauls me up with one hand threaded in my hair and I kneel, encased by his legs. He's ready for me, clean and huge, so when he presses my face between his strong thighs, there's no dried semen, just soft fur and that long thick heat. "Suck it." When I shake my head, he presses his fingers against my jaw until my mouth opens, then he pushes himself inside. "Bite me, and you'll regret it."
He's wrong about poetry, but there's not much I can say with him in my mouth. When I do nothing, he spreads his hand over my skull and thrusts into me, shoving himself against the back of my throat until I gag.
"Do it right and I won't choke you. Now put your hand around it." He clicks his tongue impatiently against his teeth.
I hold him, seething, and lick the head--and stop, surprised. The thin liquid leaking onto my tongue isn't salty, almost bitter like mine. Instead, it tastes doubtless like what it is: distilled ambrosia. I lick some more when his fingers tighten in my hair, and Ares spreads his legs wider, settling back against his throne. He doesn't think poetry matters, but I'll show him. If I live through this, I'll compose a song that will make the Trojan story seem like a nursery rhyme. I'll blame him for plague, for famine, for old age, and I'll make people believe it. I'll blame him for the deaths of Endymion, Adonis, Hyacinthus and Semele, until the gods vow to gut him like the pig he is. Then we'll see who's more powerful. I'll learn him, so he'll be real in my stories, so no one will doubt me. I'll play him, big dumb body that he is, and I'll win. Even if I die, I'll win.
"That's good," he says, and strokes my head. "You're a fast learner. Must be in your blood."
The temptation's to bite, but I suck him wetly, very wetly, so that the fur flattens and saliva trickles wind down along the line of sensitive skin. He likes the sounds it makes and strokes me with a rough paw, giving himself my mouth. Encouraged, I leave his cock to lick and suck his inner thighs, always wetly, and tongue the line where they meet his groin. His skin is textured here like the moss on my father's grave, inhumanly smooth over marble strength and slick with my saliva.
With Ares so demanding, I open my mouth to him, and he thrusts into it with a moan that vibrates the throne. He's dripping both from me and the flood of ambrosial liquid pouring from him, so much I wonder if he came. But no, he's still viciously hard, swollen with blood, and his hips, lean curves under my fingers, are rocking up as he uses my mouth for his pleasure. I'm hard, too, maybe because my body's forward incline draws my cock from it, and the blood flows in, too much blood, making me light-headed and monstrously distended like him. At least he can't see me and think this is for him, confuse physics with lust. He doesn't care about me anymore, anyway, as his hands leave my head to crush the throne's arms. A few feathery touches to confirm angles, more hard sucking to spread more wetness everywhere, including my right index finger.
Then I do it, just as he starts to shake. As my finger slides deep, Ares roars louder than he did on the Trojan field when Diomedes' sword pierced him, and comes, shouting, arching, his semen exploding into my mouth.
I'm still swallowing when he swings his fist, and fly on melted wings only to crash with a rattling fury. At first I do nothing, just lie there trying to accept the pain, storing it for later use. There's a burn along my right side, like I fell asleep too near the hearth, while my wrist crackles with its own fire. I raise it slowly and put my mouth over the tender skin, sucking lightly to discover if I can swallow the pain like I swallowed Ares' semen. It doesn't exactly work, but it's oddly comforting, so I don't stop, not even when a dislodged spear falls and smacks the back of my leg. When another one hits me, I know he's here, but don't move, not sure if I'm waiting for death, more pain, or a diatribe against penetrating a god. It's a tin victory when he does nothing, just stands there like a statue.
Eventually I realize he's gone. Does this mean I'm free? Not that it matters; I can't let anyone see me like this, naked and bloody, even if I could find my way home. And he'll be back. I know he will. But the temple's cooling while my teeth clack, and not even a priest comes to relight the fire. It serves me right for forgetting the rules of Fate, that bad fortune always follows good, that I could be adored in the morning, loved for my poetry, then be here, hurt and abandoned on the spear-scattered floor of Ares' temple.
The heavy spears clatter across the tiles as I throw them off, a hollow empty sound like the rain on the roof after my grandfather died. Epiphany strikes, only sent by Thanatos, not Calliope, and I stand on unsteady feet, then reach for a spear thick around as my fist. It's the perfect death for a poet, impaled on a spear in the house of death, only it doesn't work. The spear's too tall, designed for a god, and no matter how I brace it, the bronze tip aims above my head. The last time I try, the spear slips in my sweaty hands and scrapes a layer of skin from my shoulder. Cursing, I throw it, but the spear barely alights and lands instead with a mocking clatter a scant foot away.
My anger rushes back, and I reach out for something, anything, to break or ruin. Because this is his fault, the way I'm feeling right now, broken and half-dead, and if I could burn his temple to the ground, I'd do it. I want to be the Titan Atlas, holding this building on my back just to throw it off and hear the sound of its destruction. To my left I find a niche in the wall and fumble for the statue, stepping aside while it falls with a satisfying smack. But when I walk in a wide arc to avoid the shards, I lose my bearings and stand there crying with frustration. Any step I take could hurt. I could stub my toe, bang my elbow, crack my knee, bruise my hip, and I will. It's inevitable, the proof written on my body, the ridged scar on my right elbow, the ache in my left knee that comes with the rain, all from the falls I took before I realized that I wasn't fated to leave my house. And now I'm here like goddamn Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis, only I can't see them.
It's the cold that finally sends me shuffling forward, arms outstretched like a beggar. Predictably, my hip locates the corner of an altar, and I rub the smarting skin before sweeping my arm across the breast-high surface. I forgot about the bulls sacrificed to Ares, and so bowl after bowl of congealed blood breaks on the floor, sending a sickening flood over my bare feet and splashing up my thighs. With sticky soles, I back away until I hit the wall. I'm in luck, because there's an animal skin hanging from it, something thick with thick velvety fur, and I tug it from the hooks. It smells smoky with incense as I wrap it around me, and under that, ambrosia. I'd like to discard it because Ares has come all over the fur, but now that I'm huddled inside it, I'm too tired even to stand and curl into a ball, wishing to be unborn.
My second punishment is a blast of history where Ares incinerates my past with a handful of fiery words.
"You know," he says between thrusts, "I'm starting to think you pull shit like this just so I'll fuck you."
"Go to Tartarus."
He's got me on my back, open on a table, clean now, healed and filled with his cock. It's been going on for over an hour, stroke after stroke, like he's trying to mold my body, reshape it so that I'll take only him. I resisted at first, but there's not much I can do, and had to suffer the indignity of coming just from the feel of him inside me. He's too practiced, knows exactly how to place himself so that I'll do whatever he wants. He didn't even bother to bind me, while I've already called his name a dozen times and I'm hard again, slick with sweat like he is, trying desperately not to come again.
"Maybe I need to think of another punishment." He reaches between my legs and feels the hardness, the lingering wetness. "You like this too much."
I shake my head. "Nothing can be worse than this."
"No? Maybe I should give you to my soldiers. They'd like a hot little whore to pass around."
His words terrify me, but his arrogance grates, how he thinks I'm loving this when it's just my body reacting to his skill. He laughs every time I explain it, and I've given up. I'll show him. "You think you're any different, Ares? I'd rather be fucked by a hundred soldiers than by you. At least they fight for a cause. Not like you."
"You're one to talk about causes." Ares' rhythm doesn't break but the mock-play drops from his voice. "Why do you think I fight?"
"It's like sex for you. You want to be glutted by it until you're not empty anymore."
"You don't know me."
"Of course I do. We all know you." It comes out breathless, and I control my breathing. "We know all the gods. That's why you demand songs as tribute. So we'll know you and worship you anyway."
"That's crap," he says, shoves himself cruelly deep. "You worship me because you need me."
"Because we need you? All you are to us is pain and fear. We don't need that. Look at Troy."
His fingers gouge my flanks. "Troy was gone long before you wrote your bullshit version of it." His sweat falls on me, marking time like a water-clock.
"You can't deny what happened, what you did. All of those people died because you wouldn't let it end. I know what Achilles said: ‘No truce till one or the other falls and gluts with blood Ares who hacks at men behind his rawhide shield.'" I hear my grandfather's rusty voice, remember the splash of spilled wine as he drank and wove history.
"You don't know anything," he hisses and pulls out, finishing himself off with a few strokes onto my stomach, then yanks me up, the leather already back in place.
I'm still naked, raw and aching with his semen drying tight and powdery on my back, fragile as a shell. "You don't know what I know."
"No," Ares says, "you got that backward. But that's going to change now."
There's the smell of burnt ether and a widening ripple in the air. "What are you doing?" I expect him to take me somewhere, only I don't move, my feet still sticking to the cool temple floor while I shiver in the dark, newborn and terrified. "Am I going to die?"
"Depends on you."
The voices start then, and it's like hearing a conversation under water, the sounds murky. The deep rumble is Ares, and the other...The broken cadence of age and wine is gone, but it's familiar, a gloomy oak in summer. I'm hearing the song of history, my history, and I cover my ears, sinking into a ball. But nothing stops it. Nothing kills that painful noise, worse than the cries of Prometheus' eagle, as my grandfather begs Ares for his life, begs with panting gasps, his desperation mixed with lust while Ares pounds into him.
"Please," he says, "you have to. I have a young son."
"But my wife's dead. He'll have no one if I'm killed."
"That's not my problem. Go talk to Hestia or my mother." Ares is exactly the same, cut from time. Why should he care about one terrified mortal in a sea of them?
"Please. I'll do anything."
"You have nothing I want."
"I can't die. I can't." He wooed my grandmother with that poet's voice, which rises to fill the temple.
His fear irritates Ares, who comes with a few quick grunts. "You're not fated to die."
"Thank the Fates," he says, joyous. "Oh, thank the--"
"Don't thank them yet. They don't want your life, but they'll take your eyes."
My grandfather shouts, a single extended rush. Then, "There has to be something I can do. That's worse than death. Worse than anything. Never to see my son again. No."
"It's non-negotiable. Not unless..."
A pause follows, wide as a chasm, and my grandfather leaps in. "Anything, lord Ares. Anything to keep my eyes."
"I might be able to arrange a trade. For a price."
"I can't pay much, but I'll give you what you want. Anything," he repeats.
It's too tempting for a bored god. "This is the trade: you keep your eyes, and you give the Fates someone else's. Take it or leave it."
"I don't understand. Whose eyes can I give you? Not my son's. Never. Not possible." He's horror-struck, the words clacking like wheel spokes.
"You mortals are always so limited in your thinking."
Even though I know how this will end, my fists clench. Let my grandfather break loose from destiny and choose a different sacrifice. Naturally, inevitably, it doesn't happen.
"I guess...I guess you could take a grandson's eyes. When my son is grown up, he'll have his own children. You could take the eldest one's eyes. He would have others..."
Ares is right. My grandfather's vision is limited, and this is unreal to him, especially with Troy watching hungrily. This isn't his war. He's a poet and thought he'd spend his life on a farm, telling stories every night to his neighbors.
"Done." Ares is pleased. "Now for my price in negotiating this deal. You give your son to me, not to Apollo. He'll be a warrior, and not some limp-wristed poet."
My defeated grandfather must nod, because there are muffled sounds now, the slick creak of leather, the wet noise of a mouth closing around hard flesh. The deal is done. Somewhere on Olympus, the Fates pause in their spinning for a game of dice, only the dice are round, the black dots ringed with purple irises.
"I told you," Ares says to me, eternally present. "I told you don't know everything. Now let's get out of here. I've got places to be." He grabs me, and it feels like Fate. There is no escape.
My grandfather ensured that.
There's something wrong with the sun.
It can't penetrate the tent's rough canvas and this corner's icy, even with the leggings and tunic Ares gave me, along with a shield I'm ordered to polish. Since we arrived this morning, he has barely acknowledged me while he debates strategy and culpability with his general over a wide map that unfurled with the crackle of old vellum. There's no food in here, just the wine he shares with Brutus while they talk. When I tried to interrupt them earlier, Ares tossed a blast of energy at me, so I wait, rubbing this cloth over the metal's bumps and curves because there's nothing else to do. I can't even compose some verses, too distracted by their strong voices and the occasional burst of laughter. Underneath it all, my grandfather's betrayal itches like an old wound.
Ares likes Brutus, I can tell. It's not a surprise, really, since Brutus is Aeneas' grandson. Ares always did prefer the Trojans, and now it seems he's helping the descendants move west looking for land to settle--only Goffar, King Aquitaine, is halting their progress. But it's not just Brutus' lineage. He's smart, direct and honest, and treats Ares with deference while still challenging him. They're arguing now, and their conversation has the ease of history.
"He shouldn't have interfered," Ares says. "Your man Corineus wanted food for this men, like a good leader. He didn't know the forest belonged to Goffar. The king's soldier deserved to die for shooting the arrow."
"But Corineus could have found out. There were signs painted with the king's emblem marking the territory, and he ignored them. He could have moved on." Brutus has a nice voice, not as deep as Ares', but with an attractive clarity and intelligence. He's a thinker, and cautious. He's also very attracted to Ares; it comes through in every syllable, although he probably doesn't realize it.
The map snaps shut, Ares walks across the tent and sprawls on a couch that sounds wide and firm, horsehair under velvet. "They had been sailing for months and were nearly starving when they landed. It was necessary."
Still speaking, Brutus joins him. "But what about the messenger's murder? Goffar wouldn't be sending his troops if Corineus had shown some discipline." He sounds different now, a little breathless, but still confident.
"Goffar was just looking for an excuse." Ares' voice has changed, too. He's still talking about the battle, but the target of his intensity is the man beside him. "He wants more slaves, and he would've gone to battle no matter what Corineus did."
"We don't know that. He acted impulsively, and now we'll have to spend the winter here fighting the Poitevins. We have a mission, and we're wasting time. It's been decades since Troy, and we still don't have a homeland."
"It won't be all bad," Ares says, and kisses him.
It's not entirely a surprise. Every word Brutus speaks is full of passion, and Ares listens with respect. Besides, I know how physical Ares is, how he likes sex. Brutus, I think, knows, too, and he moans under Ares' tongue. I can hear them shifting on the couch, the stir of cloth as they strip, and the hot wet sounds of their tongues together, then the rougher sounds as they lick each other's skin.
It's the mutuality I didn't expect, how Ares touches him everywhere and lets Brutus touch him, the things they say to each other, about want and need. They kiss often and long, entirely caught up in each other's body, while I sit here, listening and pathetic. I'd risk leaving if I could find the tent flap without disturbing them. It's not that I'm jealous, only that this is so intense, so personal, that I don't belong. Brutus doesn't want me here--there's a pause when I know he's looking at me. I don't know how to act, just sit stiffly in the uncomfortable silence before Ares speaks.
"Ignore him." The god's voice is muffled. "He doesn't matter." Ares does something to convince Brutus, who moans again. Then comes the slap of flesh against flesh as they stroke each other.
My irritation is sharp and almost painful, especially when my body reacts to them, heating and hardening, and I can only sit here with this brass shield on my lap and listen to every hot wet sound as Ares slowly penetrates his lover.
"That's good," Brutus says, and sighs with perfect ecstasy. "That's so damn--"
Another kiss, which means Ares is taking him face to face. He's whispering now, hot, dirty things that drift like ghosts back to me, and I found out how beautiful Brutus is with his smoky grey eyes and long black hair, how much Ares loves watching Brutus' face while he fucks him, how tight and hot Brutus' ass is, how it drives him wild to see Brutus' thick cock so full of blood. It goes on forever, until Ares growls, "Come for me," and Brutus does with a keening cry that fades to fragmented gasps. The sight must push Ares over the edge, and the low familiar groan follows while Brutus gives another contented sigh.
I'm standing before I even realize it, painfully hard, sick with shame while the shield clangs to the ground. "I'm hungry and I'm going to look for food." Inept and humiliated, I fumble for the flap.
"Should I help him?" Brutus asks, voice smoky as his eyes. "And he'll need a cloak out there."
"Forget about him," Ares says. "He needs to learn. Besides, we're not finished here."
I leave them kissing, limbs twined together.
Brutus was right about the cloak. The air has strong jaws and sharp teeth, and I'm shivering before I've gone two steps from the tent, breathing in ice that stings my lungs. Around me men hurry past, warriors whose swords clank against iron scabbards. Their families are still on the ships with only the soldiers camped here, preparing to battle King Goffar. Ahead to my right a man shouts orders to his troops, so the food can't be that way. Another deep breath brings the comforting smell of stewed rabbit and burning wood, so I move left over ground that isn't smooth but lumped and hardened, slippery in some places while the wind burns through my clothes.
The fire is close now, with the Trojans gathered around it, talking as they eat and drink their wine.
"We'll win," a man says in a thick oak voice. "A battle axe is no match for a Trojan sword."
"My wife says nothing is," another one adds lewdly. Once the laugh dies down, he adds, more seriously, "Be great once we defeat Goffar and head west. They say there's more rabbits than men there, and sheep to feed a thousand armies. Finally, we'll have a home. No more of this slavery or this damn wandering. Just food and peace."
"My wife makes the best lamb in the world," a third man announces in a young voice, "sweet and juicy as her--" He breaks off, aware of me standing on their circle's edge. "You want something?"
I step forward. "Food. Peace."
"He's blind," the oak says in disbelief. "A blind man in a war camp."
"I still need food." My sarcasm goes over his head. "Just a bowl."
"You know the trouble these rabbits cost us?" asks the one with the sword-loving wife. "Who are you, anyway? Never seen you here before."
"You hear that, Philon? This guy's Homer." Oak snorts and slaps his thigh.
"If you're Homer," Philon says, "then you can tell us a story. Something about Troy. If we like it, you can have a bowl. Right, Cebriones?"
"If we don't, you can spit-polish my armor."
"Move over," I tell him, and take my place beside Cebriones, extending my hands to the fire. When they're silent and settled, I begin. "Hector, breaker of horses, stood taller than any man and carried a shield heavier than an oxen..."
Philon shakes with tears beside me when I'm done, when Hector's bones are burning on the pyre. "Stew!" he cries at last. "Give the man some stew!"
A steaming bowl is thrust into my hands, a wool blanket draped over my shoulders while my audience, grown to a dozen now, stamps their feet in appreciation. A strange tightness forms in my throat as I eat, as Cebriones claps me on the back and Philon demands another story. Yesterday I sang for the elite of Ionia, but somehow this means more, to tell a story to these rough soldiers, maybe because they could die tomorrow.
"Another one," Philon repeats. "But happier this time. Something to warm us."
"Something with Ares," Cebriones says.
Philon's narrow frame moves with his vigorous nod. "Yes, something with Ares where he wins the day."
"I don't know any good ones with Ares," I tell them. "What about Apollo?"
"Apollo? That sissy? No, we want Ares, the one where he kills Hallirhothius for raping his daughter, and Poseidon puts him on trial."
The suggestions fly like arrows:
"How about Ares and the Tegean women, where he helps them defeat the Lacedaemonians without their men?"
"Or when he rescued Thanatos from Sisyphus?"
"Or how he helped Romulus against the Sabines?"
"Or Cycnus against Herakles?"
"Or how he's helping us now against Goffar so we can find a homeland?"
"How do you know these stories?" I ask them. "Does he tell you?"
"Ares? Not him, although he'll talk about his favorite battles sometimes. No, we've heard them from the men who were there, from our fathers and their fathers," Philon says. "And what we've seen for ourselves."
"He's a great fighter. No one better."
"And his lovers. He's had more women and men than Aphrodite herself. Even the goddess of love is jealous of him. Remember how she cursed Dawn when Ares slept with her?"
Their adoration annoys me. They weren't in Ares' temple yesterday. They didn't see what he did to me, what he did to my grandfather. "What about people he's forced?"
Philon bellows a laugh. "Weren't you listening? He doesn't need to force anyone! He's so handsome I'd have him myself, if I had the chance. So would my wife. Now, I could see him getting forceful," he adds, his voice dropping, "but that would be because the situation called for it. Someone playing hard to get, but who'd be coming up a storm by the time Ares was done."
My face heats at that, and I bend closer to the fire so they won't see. "I suppose." Too much shame for one day, so I stand, letting the blanket drop. "How do I get back to Brutus' tent?"
A wave of silence follows the question, which seems to confirm their suspicions. What else could I be doing on the field of war but servicing one of the generals?
Cebriones leads me there. "My grandmother was blind like you," he says as we walk. "Only she didn't need anyone's help to get around. She had a stick she used to feel her way around, and counted paces to remember where she was and where she was going. If you'd like, I can cut you a stick."
I almost refuse. I've never needed one before, but it'll help me while I'm here in Gaul, so I agree and thank him.
"Here's the tent," he says. "I'll drop the staff off when I'm done."
It's deliciously warm inside the tent, but musky with semen and candle wax. "I'm back," I announce, but no one is there. What did I expect? I decide to use the time to measure the tent the way Cebriones' grandmother measured her world, and move around, back and forth, until I've memorized it. I also find a stack of wine bottles and open one without much trouble.
I'm sitting on the divan, which reeks of ambrosia, drinking from a second bottle when the tent opens.
"You're here," Brutus says. "I heard you found the food. The men were impressed with your story." He tosses down his cloak and sits beside me.
"Gone. I'm not sure when he'll be back." He takes the bottle from me and takes a long sip. "He's not exactly predictable."
"I've noticed. So what has he told you about me?"
"Not much. Just that you're a whore. A blind whore." There's a pause. "And he gave you to me. I'm sorry."
Better Brutus than the Trojan army. I reach for the bottle and drink, not stopping until it's empty. My stomach spirals so fast I barely make it outside, where I'm sick, violently sick, in the bushes near the tent. It all comes out, wrenched by the complete fracture of my life and the repulsive knowledge that Ares is only partly responsible.
When I'm done, I kick up some earth to cover it, then head back inside.
"Here," Brutus says, and hands me a glass. "It'll make you feel better. My men bought a barrel of it in town."
My stomach rolls again, but when I sniff hesitantly, it's sweet. Crushed apples. I drink it slowly, until I stop shaking, then Brutus guides me back to the couch.
"Don't worry," he says and turns to rummage through a chest. "I'm not going to use you. I just thought you should know what Ares said. So you know where you stand."
The blanket is fur-trimmed and warmer than the sun. Embraced by it, my eyes start to close, and I lie down, resting my head on a pillow. I'm about to fall asleep when Brutus lightly touches my shoulder.
"He never told me your name."
"Homer," I say. "And I will live forever." Here in Brutus' tent, a thousand leagues from home, my body drained and aching, it doesn't sound very convincing.
I spend the next day walking through the camp with my new staff. Rumor has spread about me, that I'm Brutus' whore, a gift from Ares. A few people even speculate that I'm a local god drawn to their leader's strength, and take my presence here as a sign that the Trojans will defeat King Goffar and his army. That one spreads after the evening meal, when I tell them another story, this one about Hector fighting Achilles. And for the first time since I started performing, I'm complimented on my passion, not my precision. I don't tell them who I've substituted the two heroes for in my mind, or that they're not wearing battle armor.
Brutus is here this time, and we return together to his tent. Behind us, the jokes start flying fast, the whispers and laughs. I wonder what Brutus thinks of this. He strikes me as a private man, a controlled one, despite the show with Ares. "I don't have to stay with you," I tell him as we walk. Beside me, his steps crunch with purpose. Everything he does seems purposeful, deliberate. "I can sleep with the soldiers." It's not altruism. I feel awkward around Brutus, seasons behind him.
"No, this is fine," he says. "I like the company--although you could do me a favor."
"What kind of favor?"
He slows and steps close. "I've set up a secret meeting tomorrow with one of Goffar's men. It's a last-minute attempt to stop the fight, and it probably won't do any good. But I've got to try. Enough Trojans have died." He says it with quiet fervor.
"How do I fit into this?"
"Like I said, it's a secret meeting. People already think we're lovers, so it'll look more casual if we go together. Poitiers's a pretty big town, so we can get in and out pretty easily. It's not dangerous. Goffar's a decent man, just feels we slighted him, so he won't try anything. You up for it?"
"Sure. For history."
Brutus lets out his breath in a smile. "For history."
Brutus' hair hangs to his shoulders in thick coiled curls. It's textured like Ares', and I wonder if somewhere down Brutus' family line there was a pretty queen who opened her thighs to a divine lover one hot summer night while her husband was off in battle. It would explain Ares' ongoing support of the Trojans. I don't tell Brutus, though, just keep my arms around his waist as we ride to Poitiers.
"You okay back there?" he asks.
"I'm fine." Just fighting this impulse to bury my face in his hair, smoky like wood. "Tell me what you see."
"Grey sky. Bleak. The road's pretty busy, though, but I guess you can hear that. Lots of carts loaded with food. Mostly cheese, I think. That man over there has a leather pack stuffed with what looks like copper axes and that one a basket of garlic. A few farmers driving oxen and pigs toward the town just ahead, which has a wall that looks like a pile of stone, also grey. Beside the road on the right are a few big skinny trees. No leaves, just scraggly brown branches. Everyone's wearing heavy winter cloaks and thick boots." He turns back. "Is that alright? I'm no poet. Obviously."
"No, it's good. Keep going." It's calming to ride with him, listening to his voice and warmed by his broad back, by the horse's sweating body under me.
"There's a river to the left, the same one that runs behind our camp. Our ships are on it, but further south, so I can't see them from here. But I know they're there. The ocean's further west, past more trees and a few flat brown fields. It's nothing like home. Everything seems dead here, although they say it changes in the spring, and the fields are purple with grapes, yellow with sunflowers. Hard to believe."
"You think you made a mistake bringing your people here?"
"It'll be a mistake if they're all slaughtered by King Goffar."
"That won't happen. You're stamped with victory. You ring with it."
"Too bad poetry can't win war." But he seems pleased, and continues with his description. "Looks like the line into town's not long. There are two sentries flanking the gate, and they look like bears, wrapped in thick fur coats."
People close in around me, chattering in a babble of language. "What do they look like?"
"Not like us. Pale, not so big. Some with bright red or yellow hair. Light eyes." He gives a low laugh. "You're attracting the attention of a few girls. Sisters, I think. They're all carrying baskets of fish, and all have light brown hair. They're giggling and pointing. My Gallic's not good, but I think the youngest one, who's about ten, wants to marry you."
I don't know why, but there's a sting inside my chest just above my rib cage. It all feels so natural, and therefore unnatural. In another life, I could get off my horse and go flirt with those sisters. Or I could tap Brutus' shoulder and kiss him when he turned around to show them I've already got a lover.
"Hard to believe we're in Gaul, on the brink of war," Brutus says. "We could be anyone."
Then we're at the gate, and he's paying a toll with a clink of silver to a bearish sentry. The noise suddenly grows, and I hear people thick around us, laughing and talking.
"There's a market here. Looks like people from every country in the world are gathered to sell something. Figs, carved bone, potatoes, flagons, chickens. There's a woman over there selling pots of honey, and she's got an open one she invites people to dip into for a taste."
"Thanks, Brutus. So where are you meeting the king's man?"
"There's a temple on the north side of town."
"What do the buildings look like?"
"Short and squat, made of the same grey stone. Fat chimneys that spit out grey smoke. No windows. Most doorways have little straw figures hanging in them, while the wood frames are painted with symbols. Crescent moons, that kind of thing. What's the town like to you?"
"In any town in Ionia, you smell baking bread, the salt of olives, fish and the sea. There's more here because of the wind. Green wood burning, old hay, crushed leaves, lavender. Maybe apples."
"If lavender's that purple stuff, there are bunches of it hanging beside the straw figures." The horse whinnies as Brutus reins him in. "We're here." He jumps down, then helps me to the ground.
I pull down the stick strapped across my back and head up the temple steps while he tethers the horse. Part of me wants to show Brutus that I'm not entirely helpless, and I'm childishly glad when he notices.
"How do you know where you're going?"
"The smell of blood and incense. Ares smells like that."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"How did you meet him?"
"He showed up after I'd dishonored him at the Arestheria and...took me in his temple." I'm still trying to work through what happened there, with the Trojan Philon's words rankling.
"He punished you by having sex with you?" His voice smiles. "Some punishment."
"I didn't exactly agree to it."
"But he made you change your mind?"
"I don't know."
"I thought poets had all the answers."
"So did I."
"You should see this," Brutus says. "The sanctuary's doorway is made of stone, and there are five niches on each side with a skull in each one."
"Real ones?" I reach out and feel the cool fragility of bone. "Doesn't bode well."
"Maybe you better wait here. We're in the anteroom now. I'll go ahead. If I don't come back soon, just leave." He thrusts a pouch of coins in my hand. "Bribe whoever you need to get out of town."
"Just listen to me." And he's gone down a corridor to my left.
It's stupid to worry about him, but I do. He can take care of himself, and besides I'm useless as a baby if this is really a trap. What could I do? Recite a few stanzas from The Odyssey? When my grandfather gave away my eyes, he gave away my strength, too. If anyone deserves death, it's me, not Brutus. He's got a purpose. I have...
Nothing. Words. A thousand useless words.
From my right comes the hum of chant, and I follow it, my stick clicking against the floor. The reek of blood and incense grows stronger, snaking thick and heavy into my lungs. It's strongest directly ahead, so I know the altar must be near and keep walking until my staff hits solid marble. I drop the sac of coins on the crowded surface, then fall to my knees.
A short while later, a hand on my shoulder gently draws me up. "You're giving away my money to a war god?" Brutus is amused.
"People die at a god's whim. I'm just trying to even the odds."
"It was for me?"
"Your men need you." I start walking. "So how did it go?"
"I was right. Goffar's not going to change his mind. He insists on avenging his messenger's death, although I offered compensation beyond what he deserves. It's war. We have until Gamelia."
"At least you'll establish a presence for yourself. That's important if you're going to settle to the west. They'll respect you, so you'll have time to form your community. Provided you win, of course."
"That's a good point," Brutus says, and doesn't hide the surprise very well. "Ares said something similar."
We're back on the horse, riding through the narrow streets. "Where did you meet him?"
"After my exile."
"I was out hunting when I was fifteen, and shot an arrow at a stag--only it turned out to be my father." His voice is tight and he drums his fingers against his thigh. "It didn't matter that it was an accident. I went to Greece, did some mercenary work for King Pandrasus. That's when I found out a number of his slaves were Trojan. I met a Trojan sympathizer named Assaracus and used his castle as a base for our side, then sent Pandrasus a letter telling him to release the slaves or there'd be war."
"And that's when Ares showed up."
"I was in my room, pretty much in despair, ready to give it all up because we were going to get slaughtered. We just didn't have the manpower to withstand an attack by Pandrasus' troops. I was about to call it off when he appeared. This whole mission would've failed if he hadn't helped us. He gave me advice about how to defeat Pandrasus' army, and we did. He's always been there for us."
"You're in love with him."
"He's my god, and I'd die for him. He's given my life a purpose. What about you?"
"You want to know if I have a purpose?"
"Just about your life."
It's nothing like yours," I say. "My father died in the Messenian War when I was five, and my mother not long after that."
"My mother died in childbirth," he says. "I killed both my parents."
I tighten my arms around him. "You didn't. One's fate, the other's fortune."
"That's a good way to put it." We ride quietly, then he asks who raised me.
"My grandfather. He was a soldier at Troy, and I spent years listening to his stories. When I was ten, I decided to tell him back one of his own, and he cried. He said it was like being there again. So he scraped together some money and sent me to study poetry with an old bard in the next town."
"And something happened?"
How does he know? "The second year I was away, he died. I didn't find out until it was too late."
"Me too. About a lot of things."
I say nothing after that, just rest my cheek against his back.
Brutus' boots hit the ground as he kicks them off, and he drops to the couch. "What a day."
He's spent the last two weeks drilling his men from dawn to sunset, and returns to the tent exhausted. Sometimes we play dice or just sit here talking and drinking cider. In the middle of a conversation, he'll go mute, and his breathing turn deep and rhythmic. I'll toss the blanket over him and fall asleep at his side. The past few mornings, I've woken up with my head on his shoulder, his arm around me. It's intimate like nothing I've ever experienced, but I don't let myself think about it. Brutus belongs to Ares, and I can't compete.
But I want to.
He stretches out beside me, arms so wide his bones crack. "I'm almost glad we go to battle in two days. The men are getting impatient."
"Not with you here. It's--"
The air splits like a ripe peach, and Ares is with us. "Brutus," he says. "Come here."
We both freeze, startled by the suddenness of it, then Brutus slowly rises and walks to Ares. There's no sound of discarded clothing so Ares must wave it all away, and I hear the slither of skin on skin, Brutus' moans. I should have woken him up one of those nights by taking him in my mouth. I think he would've let me, but it's too late now. My grandfather's not the only one with illusions about time, and fear of the future. All I can do is listen, trapped by the sounds of Brutus' wide-open mouth as Ares fills it with his tongue, his cock.
I've never even touched Brutus' mouth while Ares can do whatever he likes with it. Despite that, I love it more than he does because it's how I know Brutus. Even if I haven't kissed his lips, licked them, or sucked on his tongue, I've given his mouth something better: myself. I've listened to every word, stored it, loved it, dissected it. His mouth, my ear. Does Ares, fucking that mouth now, care that Brutus' worst memory after the death of his father is falling down a well when he was five? That Brutus' first lover left him for his best friend? That Brutus' favorite time of the day is dusk because the sky's color reminds him of a dog he owned?
All Ares cares about is victory, any victory, in battle or in bed. If Brutus moans and writhes against the sheets, that's only because Ares wants confirmation of his own power. Maybe, too, I'm a target here. Listening to Brutus is like first-blood, and Ares must love watching my face because I'm so hot for it that my hips thrust against my will, so close to coming that the slightest touch...
Brutus' mouth. I'm coming to it, in it, on it. His mouth. His name in my mouth. "Brutus."
"Yes," he moans, and comes with me.
My mouth, this time. His ear.
"You ever tell a story about someone you know?"
Cebrione's question startles me, and I shift uncomfortably on the unyielding earth, then lean toward the fire, letting the flames play the sun. "No. Songs are for history."
"You know who deserves one? Brutus. He's a hero. He brought us here and he'll get us west." He says this between mouthfuls of stew and meditative chewing. "Or do we have to wait till he's old and dead?"
Brutus dead. It's a cold thought with a wind of its own. Ares won't let him die. But I remember the stories of Troy, stories I've told, where Hector fights alongside Ares, but ends the battle dead as the lowest men there, men who never loved a god the way Hector loved Ares. It's not war's role to protect, and if Brutus is fated to die, Ares will leave him staining the soil red while he searches for another hero.
Cebriones nudges me. "He won't die, if that's what you're worried about. You should see him on the battlefield. He's another Hector. Fights like a lion. You should've seen him against King Pandrasus. Pandrasus had a big palace on the River Akalon, and Brutus even chased his men after they ran into the water. He hates cowards."
"What about when he tricked the Greek bastards besieging Assaracus' castle?" Philon asks. "I was inside with them, and the food was running desperately low. If Brutus hadn't convinced the soldiers outside to leave, we would have died of starvation." He pats his belly under his cloak which resounds like a drum. "It's why I can't get enough food."
"What about when we were sailing here, and those pirates attacked us near the mountains of Zarec? We would've been fish-food if Brutus hadn't kept his head and led the ship himself that defeated them. Yes," Cebriones says, nodding so vigorously I can feel it, "you need to compose a song for him. Besides," he adds, "you're in love with him. It'll make it even better."
"Homer." Brutus is standing over us. "I need to talk to you."
We walk without speaking to his tent. I think he heard Cebriones' words and my delay in denying them. Should I deny it now?
Inside the tent, I pour myself some wine while he removes his armor, then we sit on the couch. "Your men want me to compose a song to honor you."
"I heard," he says. "They're good men. Very loyal. Look, about last night..."
"What about it?"
"Ares and I have been lovers for a long time. I owe him everything. You know that. Everything I am, I owe to him."
"Not everything," I say. "He didn't make you from nothing. He didn't create you. Molded you, guided you, but not created you. You don't need him anymore."
"I do. I couldn't win this battle tomorrow without him. He's--"
"That's not true. You trained the men. You planned the defense. All he's done is...fuck you."
"You don't understand."
"I do understand. You're in love with him. I hear it when you're with him."
"What you've heard isn't what it's usually like. I think maybe he was trying to...I don't know. Teach you a lesson. Ares likes to teach people lessons."
"Me? You mean you. He was trying to teach you that you belong to him--which was obviously a wasted effort, since you already believe it."
Brutus shifts, and his thigh brushes mine before he moves back. "I'm going to bed," he says abruptly. "I've got to get up early and make some final plans for the first battle."
"Sure." Neutrality, the defense of the ego-bruised.
He stands and heads to the bed against the far side of the tent. His clothes fall carefully onto the back of a chair, then the mattress sighs as he climbs onto it. "It's a comfortable bed," he says very casually. "Better than the couch."
My dream, my lust and time run together. I should go to him, but the fear's still there. "Are you trying to get back at Ares? Is that why you're asking?"
"You really don't understand anything, do you?"
"So explain it to me."
"Ares is about duty and obligation. About my past."
"That's why you come all over yourself every time you're with him."
"Come on, Homer. You know what he's like. You're the one I want with me tonight."
This is why I'm a poet: the power of a single sentence, the perfect conjunction of syllables, rhyme and feeling. I walk to him and strip quickly, then get in beside him under the pile of blankets, lying on my back. This close, I can smell him, musky like spring. "Is the lamp still lit?"
"Just low," he says. "So I can see."
"What do you need to see?"
"Your face when you come." He waits for my reaction, and when I'm silent, touches my arm under the sheet. "You know you don't have to be here, or that anything has to happen. We can sleep."
What I want to know is why he's doing this. Pity? Boredom? Lust? Apart from Ares, I know sex only as worship. My only lovers did what I let them, while I did nothing but come in their mouth. Whatever his reasons, Brutus wants more, and I want to give him more. But... "I'm not Ares."
"I know," he says quietly. " This doesn't have anything to do with him, not really."
His hand moves up my bare arm, the lightest contact, and I turn toward him. "So why do you want this?" I sound suspicious, and maybe I am, despite what I've seen.
"I just want to fuck you."
I stay quiet.
"You want more. It was the look on your face when you sat there listening to us, when he fucked me. You were so mad, and jealous, hot and curious. Arrogant. Everything you thought was on your face. It always is. I think that's how Ares knew you wanted him, deep down, and why Ares likes to fuck you. I mean, you're handsome and all that, but it's the way you can't hide anything. I bet he takes you from the front, right?"
I think back. He started from behind, then pulled me on top of him. The next time, he had me on my back. Is Brutus right? I hate the idea of being so exposed, but am secretly pleased that he likes it. "So you want to see yourself when you fuck me? I'm your mirror?"
"Only a poet would say that. That's part of it. I'll see that you want it, that you like what I'm doing. Who wouldn't want that? But there's more to it. Do I have to explain everything before we start?" He's teasing me, his voice light as the fingers that move across my chest and over a nipple.
I slide my hand through his hair and bring his mouth to mine. His mouth. My mouth. I've never been kissed like this, and the poet in me tries to record it, scrambling for metaphors to convey the sweet intensity of it. If I don't, it will be gone forever.
"See?" He whispers it, kissing me before and after the word. "You're worrying. Don't worry. I'll make it good for you."
He thinks I'm worried about whether he can please me, when I'm already so hard for him. It relaxes me, knowing his vision is limited, that he can see the emotion, but not the reason for it. I kiss him again, sliding my tongue over his while I pinch his nipples. He's not expecting the sharpness and gasps. I remember that sound, the sound Brutus made when Ares first penetrated him, and know he likes what I'm doing. Bending my head, I try my teeth against him there, biting his nipples, then lick them so he knows it's about pleasure. Unlike me, I don't think he's used to it, and he arches, the head of his cock brushing my thigh.
"That's good." Brutus reaches for me.
"Let me do this. I like it." I wave his hands away, and understand that those boys who worshiped me did it as much for their own pleasure as for mine.
"If that's what you want."
As a response, I take his right nipple between my teeth and tug until Brutus squirms. "Where's the cider?" I ask.
"There's a cup on the table beside me. The oil's there, too."
I have to climb over Brutus to reach it, and finish most of the cup while straddling him, our cocks bumping. When he tries to rub himself against me, I squeeze my thighs tight. "Let me do what I want." Then I spill the remaining cider onto his chest, drop the pewter mug to the floor and clean him with my tongue. He can't stay still, writhing and thrusting under me, so I pin his arms down and keep lapping at him.
"I think I could come this way," he moans.
"So come. We have all night." It already seems too short, and I wish I could extend it like Zeus did for Alcmene. But I just lick his tender swollen nipples some more, then between them, across his neck, over cheeks rough with stubble. Brutus can't enter a battle with a bruised neck, so I bite and suck his shoulder forcing the skin purple, so he'll feel it tomorrow and think of me.
When he's marked, the flesh throbbing against my mouth, I lick downward over the curves, planes and hollows of his body, which is lean except through the arms and shoulders where he's bulky with muscle. I still don't know how he's sized, since I've only felt him there in fragments. I'm excited to learn him there so I don't dwell long on his flat stomach or his hips, but crouch between his thighs, pushing them open.
"I'm getting too much," Brutus says, although he's raising himself for my mouth. "When do I get to touch you?"
"Later." When my hands close around the base of his cock, which is thick, longer than mine, with a smooth rounded head that fits neatly into my mouth. The musk is stronger here, earthy especially close to his skin where the curls grow thick and tight. I know his hair's black because Ares said so, and I picture curls even blacker, like the sky before the moon escapes from a cloud.
Brutus sits up, bracing his back with pillows. "I want to see you do it. Don't stop." The words tumble out, and his hands come down on either side of my head to knead his thighs.
To reward him for the control he's giving up, I do it slowly, letting him see everything: my tongue circling the head, arrowing into it to taste more of him, licking the smooth shaft. Above me, Brutus groans, his breath quick and uneven, then whimpers when I go lower under his cock, my lips parted and ready.
"That looks so good. Oh god. Feels good, too. You're so beautiful like this, with my balls in your mouth. Lick them. Yes, like that."
When I return to his cock, it's wet with his juice and I suck it hungrily until Brutus' thighs rumble around me. Tilting my head up so he can see, I lick my finger then swallow his cock again while I start to penetrate him. He opens so quickly it's like a kiss, and I return it, stroking and rubbing skin smooth as his lips until the sweat is trickling down his chest and splashing my face, until he stays arched and calls my name.
"Pass me the oil," I tell him in a voice transformed with lust. When it's in my hand, I smear it onto him, into him, until he's dripping with it, until I am. I know what he thinks I'm going to do because he spreads his legs wide, but I'm not Ares. Before Brutus can move, I straddle his thighs and ease myself down onto him, listening to his moan.
"Wait," he says, and puts his hand on my hip. "Don't start moving yet. Let me see you sitting here on my cock."
He's huge inside me, stretching me wide. I put my hand between my legs under my cock and feel the skin pulled taut by him, how hard he is.
"You're going to kill me," he says. "You're perfect. But I need you to touch yourself. Just do that, and then we can start."
Ares was right about one thing. I am Brutus' whore. I'd do anything for him right now. I'd die for him. My hand closes over my cock and I stroke it slowly because I'm so close, because he loves it. His cock jumps inside me, and he says my name again with growled reverence.
I start riding him.
It's all sensation, a sun of it burning everywhere, no shadow, no dark, no emptiness, Semele before Zeus, so unbearably, explosively, deathly good that I swear I see him, with his wild black hair and his grey eyes, his wide mouth open as he calls my name, cheekbones high and wide, a horse, a beautiful strong horse, this son of Ares, and I ride him until he floods me, until the tent rains with semen.
It's dawn when the trumpets sound.
Brutus leaves me, dressed in full armor, but kissed and marked. That's cold comfort, though, when the tent is empty without him. I'm not enough to fill it, and I lie face down on sheets scented with his sweat and semen, breathing deeply to stave off the truth.
He will die today. I've known it since the beginning. It's the one rule that art teaches you, that I've taught countless others: love and be punished. Ask Achilles. Ask Apollo. Ask Semele. Men like Brutus aren't fated to live, so he'll be brought back to camp on a bier, one arm hanging over the side, a spear pointing to his chest like the hand of Lachrymos, leaving a trail of blood.
There's nothing I can do. I'm not Ares. I can't stand on the battlefield and deflect arrows, axes and spears. Even if I tried, I'd be cut down before I got close to him. And I can't blame Ares. This is Brutus' war, and he's not fighting to appease a god. There are no golden apples and pretty goddesses in this story. No, Brutus is on the battlefield because he needs a home, because his people need a home. It's simple, and it's history. I can't blame the grandfather who traded away my eyes, either. He did what he did from fear and love, and those are two emotions I understand. And he tried to compensate me, gave me the gift of poetry. Too bad it's not much good now. What can it do? Just move men around a campfire, make them cry and laugh for...
I know what I can do, the only thing I can do, the only thing poets ever do. I call a messenger and tell him a story about accidents and love, forgiveness and war, history and loss. Then I send him to King Goffar.
I'm standing at the stream behind Brutus' tent when the men return, pouring into the camp behind me in a noisy rush, shouting, cheering, with trumpets blowing, dreams beating. I can't move, just let the wind whip the ends of Brutus' cloak around me, my hair flying around my head, waiting for someone to tell me he's dead. I'm being selfish, though, because at least Hades will find a place for Brutus in Elysium with history's other heroes.
Only patricides, accidental or not, heroes or not, go to Tartarus. Unlike the Aquitanian king, Thanatos can't be stopped by a letter. The only one who has ever stopped him is...
It's too late to stop Death, but Hades owes Ares a favor, payback for rescuing Thanatos from Sisyphus.
I hurry back inside Brutus' tent, throwing the cloak and the stick on the floor, then drop down after them, my head touching the ground. "Ares!" When nothing happens, I add an elaborate prayer, flattering as I can. There's a sting of heat, then I hear the click of his ring against the pommel of his sword.
"What do you want?"
"I need a favor," I tell him.
"A favor?" He sounds surprised.
"I need you to convince Hades not to send Brutus to Tartarus but to Elysium instead, where he belongs. If you do, I'll make sure that no one ever forgets your name." When he stays quiet, I get desperate. "Eternity's a long time, Ares, and war gods come and go. I can compose songs that will outlast even you. Just do it. I'll do whatever you want. Anything."
He'll already walking to the bed, while my clothes disappear. "Come here and show me how much you want my help."
"I'll do it if you give me what I want." I'm already slick with oil as I climb onto sheets still twisted from last night, and Ares mounts me right away from the front. He's different this time, like he was with Brutus, stroking me, kissing me, and my body reacts. It's bestial but mechanical, and I come almost without effort, lying there while he fucks me with that barbaric expertise. That's why I miss the sound of the tent opening.
Ares lets me know that he's here. "Brutus. Good battle. Want to join us? You can take his mouth. He loves my cock up his ass too much to give it up, but the mouth is yours."
"Sorry," Brutus says, his voice flat, and leaves.
"You bastard," I say. "You fucking bastard."
"Yes." Ares replies with pride and thrusts with that perfect, practiced rhythm.
"You did that on purpose?"
"He needs to move on."
"I thought you had the brains here, poet. Now shut up and let's finish sealing this deal."
Even gods, it seems, can understand endings and beginnings. Maybe this one even planned some himself. Thinking this, I come a second time, and Ares does, too.
I find him behind the tent by the stream. "Brutus."
"We need to talk."
"There's not much to say." His boot works the ground. "Thanks for the letter to King Goffar. He withdrew and even offered us free use of his forest for hunting. The men are ready to crown you."
"We need to talk about Ares."
"You don't have to explain that," he says, each word flat as the Gallic fields. "What happened between us was just a fuck."
I almost believe him. Poetry teaches you some things, but others you have to learn on your own. So I'm about to turn away, call Ares and go back to wintry Ionia.
Then he speaks: "Besides, I can't compete with Ares."
My words, only he doesn't know that, and I know what they mean. I know with a clarity that's beyond language, that's beyond anything but me and him. Because that's what this is about. Nothing else right now. Not poetry, not meter, not the history of Troy or a grandfather's betrayal, or a god's manipulations. Just me and him. His mouth, my ear.
I want to tell him what I've done, the deal I made with Ares, but I can't. Brutus will think he owes me, and that's not what I want. I'm not Ares, and maybe that's not all bad. So, like all good poets, I mix truth and lies. "I'm sorry about what you saw. A lot has happened in the last few days, and I wanted to see if last night was real. Ares was the only way I could confirm it."
"And was it real?"
"I've spent my life not knowing what was real." I kiss him flush on the mouth. "But this is. You are."
I could use poetry to convince him, metaphors, allusions, but I decide to show him instead, and take Brutus' hand to lead him into the tent.
Brutus misses the first glimpse of the western shore, the land that he founds. He's too busy in the cabin of his ship sucking my cock while I suck his. Above us, though, we hear Cebriones' call, hear the men's shouts and the women's tears, and when we come, it's like swallowing destiny.
We dress quickly and go to the deck where the air is tangy with salt and new sunshine. "What does it look like, your new land?"
He whispers something in my ear about dark hair and a poet's face. I'm ready to take him downstairs again when Cebriones lumbers up beside us, Philon at his heels.
"So what about that poem we asked you for? Because now's a good time for it."
I turn to face the men, and begin the story of the founder of Britain.
"He is Brutus, and he will live forever..."