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Court of Fire

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“Entertain her. Keep her amused. I will be busy and Madame will be bored,“ the King told Eros, as they faced each other across the card table. “And you speak her language. She will be enchanted.”

“She” was Hélène, or Helena. An exotic beauty in the King’s court, and his current favourite to share his bed. Not the royal mistress, just a lover. An ornament. There were many like her, vying for the King’s attention, often on the insistence of their husbands, who expected to gain political influence that way.

Eros, whose name marked him as Greek, too, nodded politely. “As your Majesty wishes. But…” It was so difficult to figure out these people, who on the one hand changed partners more often than underwear or wigs, yet called promiscuity a sin.

This King had a legion of lovers at Court, a Mistress who ruled at his side, and a wife imprisoned in a castle for taking a lover. And if rumour was to be believed, he had had the lover murdered.

People duelled over marital rights, yet hardly spent any night in their matrimonial bed. Eros was far from objecting to this, on the contrary, but his sense of self-preservation had taught him not to overstep his bounds.

“Shy?” The King raised a painted eyebrow.

“When you say entertain…”

The King laughed, a rare guffaw, a deep belly laugh. “Don’t play the innocent, Monsieur. What was this you bet during Twelfth Night? That you could tell apart the ladies at court by their backs?”

“I do not want to overstep bounds of acceptable behaviour,” Eros admitted. “I am a stranger here and the mores and rules of this place sometimes confuse me.” The wager had certainly happened, although he had been cheating.

“Alright. Spelled out for the foreigner: Keep Madame amused, so she will not be bored and decide to return with the Ambassador. I don’t care what it takes. Dance with her, compliment her, sleep with her. Women like that are commodities, flowers and jewels, ornaments. Like cats, they live to be worshipped and pampered, never to be owned.” He smiled at Eros, rice powder cracking on his cheeks. “You cannot steal anything from me that I never had. Women like that do not fall in love.”

He reached out and patted the Eternal’s shoulder. “And neither do men like you.”

 

Eros woke with Helena’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, her breasts pressed against his back. Her breath tickled his ear and he felt one leg snake around his hips.

“I am surprised,” she said, her voice soft as a feather, like the down filling mattress and pillows.
“Why?”

Her skin, sweat dried during the night, came loose from his with an almost unpleasant sensation of tearing, as she pulled herself up over his shoulder, reaching down his chest, one hand coming to rest over his heart.

“Paidi mou”, she chuckled, her native language much more colourful than the French she spoke only haltingly, “weren’t you supposed to be gone in the morning?” The barest brush of lips against his cheek raised goose bumps on his neck.

He trailed a finger over her arm up her shoulder. “Do you regret seeing me in the light of day, Helenitsa?”

Laughter like pearls dancing in a brook bubbled from her throat. “Eros…” The evenings sweet wine was still on her breath, mingling with the heady perfume in her hair. “There is nothing to regret about you, in light of day or starlight.”

“A poetess, as well as a priestess of Aphrodite’s?”

Debauchery left him languid and slow; her trailing touches felt like the sun drifting in through half drawn curtains.

“And everything else you like me to be.” With surprising strength, she drew herself up his side and unbalanced him so he ended up on his back with her on top. She breathed another kiss on the tip of his nose.

Eros reached up to push back her long black curls from her face. Only the barest remnants of make-up still lingered around the corners of her mouth and eyes, baring olive skin and sensuous lips. Much more beautiful than the mask she painted on in the evening, as alluring as that had been. He ran his thumb over her cheekbone, perfect as a Byzantine statue. “Just your glorious self that takes my breath away as surely as Cupid’s arrows.”

“Silly boy.” Her lips found his, hot and fierce, as she pressed him into the pillows like a mermaid pushing a sailor underwater. His hands tangled in her hair, pulling her along.

“Helena…”

 

The distraction of talk never kept them idle for long, so the sun was high in the sky when they came to rest again, once more sweaty and sated. Helena’s head rested on his chest, one hand idly following the contours of his body, while he stroked her hair.

“You only wake in your wife’s bed,” she explained suddenly, speaking French, no longer her native Greek. There was a note of bitterness in her voice that surprised him. “With a hetaira like me, you are gone in the morning, because you are not supposed to see me like a wife.”

“How do I see a wife?”

“Like this. Sweaty. Unmade. Flawed.”

“And what about me? May you see me like that?” he asked, half fascinated and half confused. “Or is that also something you should only see in a husband?”

He could feel her frown against his skin. “I don’t think that matters. Nobody expects a man to be perfect, husband or lover.”

That made him chuckle, because it was so… absurd. “Hardly sounds fair, my glorious Aphrodite. And you are always beautiful, in finery, and in passion.”

“Flatterer.” Helena grinned. “That’s just because you are a barbarian with no sense of culture. You don’t know what is proper, even though your manners are flawless.”

Eros cocked his head. “Proper, Aphrodite? I am a connoisseur, not a gentleman.” He wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her hair. “I don’t lay claim to what I could never be.”

She pulled the blanket over them and embraced him back. “Don’t claim anything. Just hold me and keep the light away.”