"Rumor is of all pests the swiftest...And she strikes dread throughout great cities, for she is as retentive of news which is false and wicked as she is ready to tell what is true." --Virgil, The Aeneid
"In Latin, ‘fame can mean either ‘reputation' and ‘renown,' or ‘rumor'...since the substance or material of fame or reputation is nothing but rumors."
--John M. Fyler
The autumn wind puffed cool sea air along Iphicles' neck under the wide hood. Shivering as the breeze licked his spine, he gathered the soft folds of fabric near his chin and pulled them close. At least the chill excused his long cloak and ducked head, made him invisible in the well-bundled crowd bustling through Corinth's market place.
Sidestepping a stray dog who sniffed him hungrily, he took a narrow street to the east, walking until the red and blue striped awning of a bakery appeared to his left. The sweet smell of honey- soaked cake wafted toward him, but Iphicles ignored temptation. Turning onto Butcher's Row, the raw stench of dead flesh ate his desire, and he stepped carefully over cobblestones slick with blood. His footfalls echoing hollowly, Iphicles headed north through the ruined arch to the oldest part of town.
Decades earlier, on the third night of the Laenaea, a drunken student knocked over a lantern, starting a fire that destroyed most of the old quarter. Even now, the city walls showed blackened smudges where flames had scorched the grey stones, while most of the abandoned homes, roofs immolated, offered their charred hearts to the heavens. Inevitably, stories spread of scorched- skinned children haunting the ruined streets, of black-shrouded lovers with pale, hollow cheeks wandering through fog.
As the sun died messily overhead, Iphicles remembered the tales and hoped he'd pass for a ghostly lover. No excuse in the world would stop the night watchmen's gossip if they caught the king alone out here. They'd have him cavorting with whores or worshiping demons. Worse, they'd suspect the truth: that the king met personally with a trusted spy for news of a Roman invasion.
Passing between two marble pillars at the end of a dark lane, he entered the small park, following a weed-bordered path to its heart. Iphicles wondered if the meeting's location reflected the spy's sense of irony: outlined against a red-streaked sky stood a marble statue of the goddess Rumor, the one the Latins called Fame, her broad wings casting shadows on the grass. Even in the fading light, he saw the watching eyes painted on each of her green-tipped feathers, the tips of a thousand tongues protruding from her smug mouth. She perched on a base designed like a house, the curved claws of her narrow feet hooked on a ledge. Waiting.
Contemptuous of the Olympians, source of his family's grief, Iphicles nearly bypassed the statue. But, alone in the whispery twilight, he paused to dig into the leather pouch around his waist for a gold coin, slipping it through the window of the building beneath the goddess' feet. As it fell, striking the sides, the coin sang his hypocrisy. Still, better safe than sorry.
Behind the statue, near the stone wall, stood two hawthorns, branches entwined, with a bench placed between their solid trunks. Lacydes usually waited there, half-obscured by green darkness, tips of his scuffed leather boots kicking up small tufts of grass. Not today. Iphicles drew his sword and walked slowly forward, feet sinking into the springy earth, then dropped heavily on the leaf-strewn seat. Aiming his sword at the Underworld, he leaned over and rested his chin on fingers interlocked over the bronze pommel to think out his next move.
A noise to his right cracked the quiet. Iphicles jumped up, mud-tipped sword ready, as a figure, cloaked like himself, strode purposefully toward him, stopping only a few feet away. The man's black hood revealed only a clean-shaven chin and the curve of a full bottom lip. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Bellus. Lacydes' replacement."
The words flowed out rich and smooth as old wine, a perfect voice for death's messenger. Still, Iphicles had to ask. "Where is he?"
"Dead." When Bellus moved closer, the sharp tip of Iphicles' sword bit the soft fabric at his chest, cutting through the weave.
Only one hard shove to vengeance, Iphicles thought, but held back. "Any closer, and you'll be on the express ferry to Tartarus. Just give me an excuse."
"Relax. I didn't kill him." No fear marred the intimate tone.
"Then who did?"
"Caesar had him executed when he found out that Lacydes was double-dealing."
"And you're here because...?"
"Because Caesar sent you a message." Reaching slowly inside his cloak, Bellus pulled out a tightly-rolled parchment.
"Put it on the bench," Iphicles said, his sword arm unwavering.
In the falling darkness, Bellus' teeth flashed white. "If I was going to kill you, you'd be on the Tartarus-express yourself." He pressed his fingertips against the blade's flat edge, pushing it from his heart, then placed the scroll firmly into Iphicles' free hand. For a second, their warm fingers touched. "He wasn't happy to find a spy in his midst, as you can imagine. Don't blame Lacydes for giving you up, either. Caesar's persuasion is hard to resist."
"You mean he brutally tortured him to get my name." Iphicles rubbed his thumb over the seal, tracing Caesar's profile, aware of Bellus' smoky gaze. Bits of red wax crumbled to the ground, and the scroll thickened. "What does he want?"
"Nothing suspicious. Just your company in Rome."
"So he can kill me himself?"
A quick head shake knocked the hood back, showing wavy dark hair. "Not his style. He'll try to convince you that surrender's in your best interest. Murder's reserved for those who betray him. You're a challenge."
"How flattering." He returned his sword to the scabbard, tucking Caesar's missive inside his shirt, its crisp edges scratching his left nipple like a lover's nails. "Is the rumor true? That he's got Ares' full support?"
"Yes. The god's a regular at court. The Romans think he's Mars, and temples are cropping up along the Tiber to the southern spur of the Capitoline Hill. Caesar lets them; he thinks it raises his status." Bellus paused, running his fingers lightly over his thighs. "You don't like Ares?"
"I've never met him," he said shortly, "but he's an evil bastard." Just ask Hercules. "So they're planning to take Corinth?"
"The emperor's got his eye on all of Greece, Corinth first. Initially, he'll leave the other cities alone so they won't side with you, thinking they're safe."
"I don't get it: why're you telling me all this?" A sudden silence weighted the question, and he realized how close they stood. When Bellus spoke, Iphicles smelled his warm breath, tinged with honey.
"Because it's inevitable. Caesar always wins. And with Ares by his side, he's unstoppable."
The tone was admiring, and Iphicles wondered about the relationship between Bellus and Caesar, even as his tension grew. With cruel clarity, he remembered his coronation party. Pleasantly bombed on sweet Rhenish wine, he'd taken his stepfather aside to thank him privately for the honor. Jason had clasped him around the shoulders, then stepped back, saying with a wink, ‘Now don't screw it up, Iphicles.' A joke turned prophecy.
"Tell Caesar I'll be there by the month's end," he said, offering Bellus a fistful of gold coins warmed by his body.
"I don't need your money. Caesar'll reward me well." A quick grin. "If you're looking to thank me, I know another way." The seductive smile returned.
Iphicles almost said yes. A quick, intense fuck might relieve his stress. Months had passed since the last time, and Bellus gave off this heat. But sleeping with the enemy could backfire, especially if Caesar found out. "Maybe some other time."
"It's your loss." With a small nod passing as a bow, he vanished into the gloom.
Heading back through the quiet streets, aware of his heartbeat, Iphicles considered his options. They were limited, to say the least. Only the combined forces of Corinth, Athens and Sparta could defeat the Romans and their bottomless coffers, and the Boetian war had strained relations with Athens. Even if he could convince Theseus to join forces with Corinth, the Spartans, still smarting over the Megaran fiasco, would never agree. An assassination? The emperor's tight security made a breach unlikely. Besides, a successful attempt would be political suicide: once news traveled of his betrayal, he'd be a pariah.
That left only one alternative: an alliance with Rome. The problem: what would appeal to Caesar more than Corinth's subjection? Some land to the north, maybe. A few port towns. Right. Like that'd satisfy the Conqueror.
Cocooned in his thoughts, Iphicles missed the turn-off back to the marketplace and his horse. He ended up instead on a surprisingly busy street, overrun with men smelling of semen and wine. The hot district. About to retrace his steps, the king changed his mind, instead walking up a short flight of stairs into the nearest building, always keeping his head tucked low. Don't think, he told himself. You need this.
A woman, hennaed hair falling in plump curls down her back, led him through a doorway to the main room. Glancing quickly around, ignoring the bright murals with their Bacchanalian revelries, he pointed to a young man with dark eyes and short black hair who reclined casually against a blue silk couch.
"That one," he said in a low voice, and handed over Bellus' gold.
The boy rose to his feet, and Iphicles followed him up the winding oak staircase and into a small room at the back. It contained a large four-poster bed, with an assortment of oils on a small table beside it, while fat white candles burned in sconces on the walls. Shutting the door behind them, Iphicles snapped an order before the boy could turn around. "Strip, then lie face down on the bed."
Wordlessly, the whore obeyed. When naked, he crawled onto the mattress and knelt, palms flat, his smooth ass ready.
Iphicles stared for a moment, then grabbed the green jar beside the bed before retreating out of sight. Quickly removing his clothes, he oiled his cock then smeared a generous portion of the cool liquid between the boy's cheeks, eliciting a small sound of pleasure as his finger slid in. When the tight muscle loosened, opening to him, Iphicles pulled back his hand to grab his cock, rubbing the swollen head lightly against the small, gleaming hole.
The hot pressure made him moan, and he pushed a little harder, watching the head stretch the skin before disappearing inside the beautiful ass. Holding the boy's hips for leverage, Iphicles paused and let the whore's wriggles of pleasure taunt his cock. He held back until his breath came in short, harsh bursts. Squeezing the swaying hips with precise, bruising force, he shoved once, hard, until his balls pressed firmly against the ripe cheeks.
"Does it feel good?" he whispered.
"Incredible," the boy gasped back. "You're amazing. The best ever."
Practiced words to prompt a good tip and return business. Iphicles wanted more. Reaching between the boy's thighs, he took the semi-hard cock in his oily hand, stroking it in time with his slow, deliberate thrusts. "That's better," he said, when it stiffened under his touch.
Beneath him, the boy said nothing, only gripped the sheets and whimpered as Iphicles penetrated him again and again. When sweat collected between the curved shoulder blades, Iphicles lapped it up, his hand never stopping its steady rhythm along the boy's hot cock. His own skin turned slick as the heat licked his bones, and he thought of Bellus, imagined him bent over the bench under the trees, Iphicles' cock buried inside him. With his eyes closed, the boy became Bellus, arrogance lost to lust, urging him on with lewd promises.
His orgasm came long and slow, spreading sweetly like honey through his body. Opening his mouth, Iphicles extended his tongue, tasted Bellus' mouth and shuddered, sure his cock would never stop pulsing. The raspy cries and the creamy wetness in his hand pushed Iphicles even further, the whore's pleasure drawing more semen from him.
The idea came with the final white-hot burst. Maybe he knew a way to save Corinth.
When the air thrummed before him, Caesar lowered the book on his lap, one finger keeping his place, and draped one arm along the silky back of the couch. "So?"
Ares dropped down beside him, stretching out his long legs and clasping his hands behind his head. The sofa squeaked in protest under his weight. He said nothing at first, staring up at the white clouds painted against a blue background.
"Was he that impressive?"
"No. Just not what I expected. He's nothing like my brother. Pulled a sword on me, didn't want to take it away. Very tense, very suspicious. A little uncontrolled. Sarcastic, too. About the only thing he's got in common with Hercules." He shifted, finally facing Caesar.
"Is he coming?"
"Yeah. He doesn't want to, though. He knows he's out of his league."
"Did you fuck him?"
The god reached out, stroking Caesar's thigh with a large hand. "I made a half-hearted offer, but he turned me down. Barely. If I'd pushed, he would've done it."
"Is he attractive? Big and bovine like his brother?"
"Nothing like Hercules. Very sexual. Lots of touching, long stares. Looks more like a farmer's son than a king--which of course is what he is. After seeing him, though, I've changed my mind about why Jason gave him the crown. I used to think it was to piss off the councillors who wouldn't leave him a loophole to stay in power. After seeing Iphicles, I think it's because he wanted to fuck him."
"I'll have to try him out myself," Caesar said.
"I doubt he'd be hard to seduce. Our little meeting got him so turned on that he broke royal protocol and went to a whorehouse. Spent a few hours fucking some pretty little boy."
"I wanted to see him in action, but it was pretty tame. Just straight fucking. He made sure the boy came; it got him hot."
"Did it get you hot?"
Ares grinned. "He has a nice ass. And a big cock." He slid his hand higher, under the leather hem of Caesar's tunic. "But he doesn't have your technique."
"That's not what I mean. Did you come?"
"Do you really care? There's plenty more."
"You know I do." Reaching behind him, never hurrying, Caesar tugged the silken cord. "Let's forget about the king for now. I've got a surprise for you. Some new worshipers, you might say. Take these off, " he added, nodding at the tight leather pants. The god's clothes disappeared with a flick of his wrist. "Now lie on that altar. It won't be long." His eyes never left Ares' body as the god walked to the long table. Even the knock at the door didn't distract him. "Enter," he commanded, and four men came into the room, wearing only short, pleated linen skirts and jeweled blue collars. With their ankles chained, they moved slowly, pushing a small cart filled with steaming bowls of water, white cloths, and bottles of oil. Caesar pointed to Ares. "He's the one."
Propping himself up on an elbow, the god studied the newcomers. "They're priests?"
"Not much call in Aegyptus for priests to the old religion. These men worked in the temple of Apis before we converted it to an archive. We killed off most of them, of course, but these ones are special. Apis," he added, "was a fertility god, and the cult accepted only the most handsome men to please him."
Caesar got to his feet, moving closer to the table as the priests eased Ares down and began to dip the soft cloths in the lemon-scented water. Flanking him in twos, they started at his face, rubbing the god's skin in concentrated circles until it glowed. The dark hair at his temple curled as silver drops trickled there, and his lashes turned spiky, while his massive cock, eternally hard, grew even thicker. He remained still, though, allowing them to prepare his body.
His face carefully neutral, Caesar kept watching, barely blinking. He might be ruler of the known world, but Ares was a god. Looking at him, no one could think anything else, unless Ares took mortal form, like he did with Iphicles. He was too big, too beautiful. Even his flesh felt different: smoother and hotter, with an almost luminescent glow. These priests knew it too, their cocks all rising under the short skirts, their breathing quickening. They needed no supervision with their own desire for Ares guiding them to the sensitive hollows and curves of his body. But this first stage, the cleansing, had to pass quickly, before the water cooled.
They left his chest wet, the black hair tangled and matted there. His arms came next, each one lifted and then scrubbed until it gleamed. The blue veins throbbed beneath his skin, pumping that divine blood between his legs, and Caesar fought the urge to trace one with his tongue. His own cock felt heavy, painfully full. Not yet, he told himself. Wait.
White cloths moved precisely down the long thighs, again flattening the dark hair. When they avoided his cock, the god arched impatiently. The men had orders, though, and faced torture if they ignored any of Caesar's careful commands. Still, that thick, swollen cock begged for a mouth, a tongue to lick away those precious drops that gathered on the huge head. First, let the pressure build.
The priests were carefully rolling the god over now, displaying his broad golden back and the perfect curves of his ass. Water splashed on his skin, hit the strong column of Ares' spine, then coursed down between the rounded cheeks. His entire body was symmetrical perfection, despite its size, and more than anything, Caesar wanted to touch it, to bury himself in it. Instead, he unclenched his fists and forced his breaths to slow.
Only cowards and children showed weakness. His uncle taught him that, had whispered it in his ear late at night while his aunt lay sleeping a few doors down. Then, he'd despised the brutal lessons, but time proved Marius right. Without control, you had nothing. With it, you ruled the world and consorted with gods. Applying his uncle's philosophy, Caesar had endured imprisonment, torture and rape. He'd destroyed nations, built empires. But nothing prepared him for Ares.
As the first amber beads of oil fell on the god's back, Caesar thought about their first meeting.
Appointed governor of Roman Gaul a year earlier, he traveled there and set about establishing his supreme authority. Initially, not all the Gauls or the nearby Germanic tribes accepted his rule. Of the latter, the Helvetii proved the most persistent, crossing the Saone repeatedly to encroach on Sequani territory, savaging the people, mocking Rome.
When a spy informed him that, despite the warnings, the enemy once again marched over the water, Caesar personally led a trio of legions against them. Setting up camp on the river's edge, they steadily slaughtered each troop of soldiers who crossed, impaling their heads on stakes placed at intervals along the bridge. The Helvetian leaders quickly sent ambassadors to plead for leniency, and Caesar, against all Roman custom, greeted them dripping with their kinsmen's blood--face, hands, legs smeared and reeking with it. Then he executed all but one of the diplomats, sending back the survivor with the word "Never" carved across his back.
Elated, convinced more than ever of his destiny, he left the others to celebrate and headed at last for the nearby temple his men had converted into a bath house. Passing under the portico, feeling his skin tighten as the thick coat of blood dried, Caesar followed the center aisle to the altar at the god's feet, where he lit a brand before turning left through the small bronze door that led to the inner sanctum. As he walked down the steep steps, nearing the hot springs at the building's core, the air turned warm and moist, and he began to sweat under the temple's breath. His skin dampened, liquefying the dead men's blood, ripening it.
A sound echoing through the shadowy passage startled him, and he tripped, striking the wall with his elbow and dropping his torch, which went out at once. The dark stung his eyes, but he kept moving, using his hands against the dewy marble for balance. Once he reached the bottom, the flickering light of a candle thinned the blackness, and Caesar knew he wasn't alone. Without hesitation, he forged ahead, drawing the knife tucked into his belt, the same knife he'd used to slit the ambassadors' throats.
Another few paces brought him to the colonnaded room with the sacred spring at its center, green water shimmering. The sconces bordering the door burned brightly, but the corners greedily hoarded the dark. Directly across from him stood a large statue, arms folded across a powerful chest. A war god.
Stepping forward, he said loudly, "I am Caesar," and hurled his knife into the air above the pool. It arced up toward the high domed ceiling, spun, patches of silver catching the fragmented light, before shooting blade-first into the water. At the rippling splash, he undressed, peeling off the sticky layers. Even under his clothing, the blood stained his flesh.
Naked, Caesar stepped toward the edge, refusing to look around, staring only at the statue. Then it moved: the muscular arms unfolded, one hand going to the head of his sword, the other tossing a blue flame at the water that left an onyx plank in its wake. The figure drew near and black marble became dark curls; gold became smooth skin.
"I am Ares," it said.
Caesar raised his head, meeting the god's death-black eyes. Here was destiny, power, conquest personified. He wanted to feel that strength coursing through him, more potent than blood, than wine, than mother's milk. When Caesar fell to his knees and took the huge cock in his mouth, it wasn't to worship a god. It was to taste immortality.
And now, a thousand sips later, Caesar watched the priests of Apis prepare the god and shook with the desire to feed, addicted to the hot, bittersweet taste of Ares' divine semen.
Ares again lay on his back, and four sets of skilled hands worked the oil over his shoulders and arms, using the heel of their palms to burnish him. This time, the priests lingered over the pulse at his throat, the crook of his elbows, the line of his inner thighs, the crinkled skin of his nipples. The god didn't move, despite his growls of pleasure and the need leaking from him, because he appreciated worship, accepted their desire as his due. Caesar understood that.
Would he move, in Ares' place? No. He wasn't moving now, though it hurt to watch two of the men squeeze Ares' nipples between thumb and forefinger, to see the others bend his legs at the knee before slicking oil over the god's heavy balls. Here, cut off, waiting, his chest felt hollow, excavated, while his tongue circled dry lips. Sweat ran between his ribs, counting them, but he shivered, cool in the steamy room. No one noticed--the men's eyes all focused on Ares.
Caesar abruptly snapped his fingers, the pre-arranged signal, and the priests gave a collective sigh, like the chorus in a play. Time for their taste of divinity. The two bordering the god's torso bent, their warm mouths replacing the teasing fingers on the Ares' nipples. The second pair, though, had Caesar's attention: one grabbed the base of the god's cock, then both bowed as if in prayer, tongues gliding over the dusky flesh.
His throat closed convulsively as he imagined the huge, wet cock filling it. Soon. So soon. The reverential sucking had Ares' hips gently thrusting, deep and rhythmic, and his back curved with pleasure. Caesar began to count in his mind, backward from twenty, letting each number delay his own orgasm, letting each one build up Ares'. At last he snapped his fingers again, and the priests stopped their lavish attention to the god's cock, dropping to their knees where they stood, and Ares groaned.
But he rose on his elbows, pushing aside the two priests at his nipples to watch Caesar position himself between the god's thighs. His turn now, Caesar thought. Victory He was vaguely aware of the hot tongues now licking him, but that sweetness melted into the joy of taking Ares' cock in his mouth. The first taste ricocheted through him, and his body jerked, tongue working furiously to find more. Caesar, sucking desperately, stared into that inhumanly beautiful face contorted with lust, then slid a finger inside his god.
He drank his reward: flame-hot cream that seared him, that killed his humanity and made him timeless.