Madness arrives on the rain. Every drop twists reality through it, refracting it into colors and sounds and shapes until there is nothing but the seething mass of prophecy. It is an avalanche of information, unstoppable, uncontrollable, carried on every droplet of water and howling of the future no matter how Zhenya tries to escape it, until he howls too, rends his clothes and tears at his hair and sobs. It’s always been this way, thunderstorms dancing with a deluge of visions, of knowledge, of the chaos of the future, until Zhenya is dizzy, unfocused, lost, cast adrift in time. There is nothing but the flicker of vision, a thousand different fragments vying for his attention, priest-kneeling battle-raging whispers-of-future-plots bear-dying empress-screaming fucking-gently-hands-tangled-in-black-wavy-hair--
“Zhenya. Zhenya!” The voice is bossy and familiar, and it stops Zhenya in his tracks. He turns, and there is Sidney hurrying towards him, red-faced. His hair is growing quickly, Zhenya notices-- it’s nearly as long as the first joint of Zhenya’s thumb already, no longer the close-shorn cap required of the youngest sybil in the temple. Beau has taken that honor now, in anticipation of Zhenya’s advancement. The morning sun falls through a windowslit and sparkles across Sidney’s hair as he comes to a stop before Zhenya.
“Yes, Sid,” Zhenya says. “It’s nearly time for me to go, you know.”
“Of course I know that,” Sidney says in a huff. He stopped close enough to Zhenya that he has to crane his neck to meet Zhenya’s eyes. “ You are the one that cannot arrive on time to any event. That’s why I came to find you.”
An inescapable fondness bubbles up in Zhenya’s chest as he looks down at Sidney’s face, twisted in determination. Zhenya raises his hands to cup them around Sidney’s cheeks as Sidney’s look continues, stubborn and immature, the same expression of their childhood misadventures. They are just but a year in difference, though sometimes that year feels like a chasm and sometimes not even as much as a blink. Still, Sidney is the only sybil that Zhenya will miss keenly-- even now, the mere thought of walking away from him cuts into his breast with a pain like a wicked arrow-- and he leans forward to press a tender kiss against the soft edge of Sidney’s hairline.
“All will be well, Sid,” Zhenya soothes, but his words don’t erase the line of worry darting across Sidney’s brow. “I will pray, I will go, and then I will come back, a proper Oracle like the temple has not had in nearly a score of years.”
“Take me with you to the river,” Sidney says, and it’s half-command, half-demand.
“The vigil is meant to be taken only by the sybil embarking on the Oracle’s Journey,” Zhenya says, but it’s half-hearted. Companionship sounds… nice. The mountain will be chill and lonely; he cannot in any honesty reject the warmth of company as he prepares.
“If the goddesses disapprove, may they strike me down directly,” Sidney declares recklessly. “Until then, I will remain by your side.”
“I will make you sit downriver so that I am not caught in the wrath of the goddesses when they take you to task over your blasphemy,” Zhenya says. He tries to ignore the look that Sidney aims at him; he is mostly unsuccessful. “Fine,” he relents. “You may sit closer, but I will blame you if we are struck by lightning.”
Sidney grasps Zhenya’s hand, shaking it impatiently, as he says, “Well?! You’re running late, you should have been at the river nearly half an hour ago!”
Sidney and his blasted timeliness. “I can simply leave a half an hour later than planned,” Zhenya says mulishly. “I expected to be an hour late in total, so there is still time.”
Sidney rolls his eyes. “And so you prove my earlier point! But now I am here, and you will only be half an hour late,” Sidney says firmly. It’s only then that Zhenya notices Sidney has a rucksack upon his back, and Sidney swings it around to open it and pull from it-- with a flourish-- the carefully folded shape of the ceremonial toga.
“That was in my chambers!” Zhenya says indignantly.
“Now it’s in my hands, though it should be on your body,” Sidney says tartly. He gestures impatiently at Zhenya. “Come, hurry, and you won’t be too late. Once again, I must get you out of trouble, as if we were once again eight years old and sybil-acolytes absent from our duties.”
Grumbling, Zhenya untwists himself from his toga and throws it petulantly at Sidney. Sidney catches it-- half with his face, Zhenya notes-- and passes the ceremonial toga over. Zhenya shakes it out and winds it about his body as Sidney hurriedly stuffs the discarded purple-lined sybil’s toga, identical to his own, into the rucksack. They are done at nearly the same moment, and Sidney reaches out to snatch Zhenya’s hand tightly again.
Zhenya lets himself be pulled along the halls of the temple. He shivers; perhaps this is the last touch he will feel upon his skin before he goes to the underworld. Sidney follows the trail of waterfalls set into the side of the hallway upstream, climbing up steps and dodging around acolytes. By the door, there are heavy cloaks, lined with rich furs, and Sidney pauses with Zhenya to don one before they push out into the snow.
It hits Zhenya like a slap; not the cold, but the fractured future dancing on the wind. Within the temple, it’s easy to look away from the colors that dance within and seep uncontrollably upward from the holy river that winds through the halls, but here he cannot look away so simply. He is surrounded by water and visions of the future, and he grits his teeth, narrows his eyes, and pushes forward to the rainbow that is the river, brushing aside fractured moments of others’ lives like cobwebs.
There is the river, and here is the flattened snow around a small brazier. Zhenya settles gratefully next to the tiny warmth thrown off by the brazier and shuts his eyes to earn a tiny respite from unending prophecy.
Sidney clears his throat after a long moment, and Zhenya reluctantly opens his eyes. The immediate onslaught is unfamiliar-- a glittering snowscape that’s both beautiful and deathly and filled with jagged teeth of ice, eyes edged in purple and seeping helpless tears, an Oracle and his Oracle-Consort perched above a holy pool with their faces shadowed as the future dances through the air before them and their supplicants-- and then familiar-- an Empress shouting at Zhenya in a cloud of fury and temple perfumes, a massive, snow-white bear roaring in fury, curling black hair tangled in Zhenya’s fingers as he drives his hips forward. Habitual disappointment arises at the last; still the goddess does not show him a face to go with the body he has fucked and caressed and kissed and loved a thousand times over and a thousand times again. This stranger-- the wavy-haired man, Zhenya calls him, for lack of any better name-- has been Zhenya’s constant companion through his life, as loyal as Sidney and yet far more mysterious. He can feel that sometimes the wavy-haired man comes to the visions from far in the future, and sometimes from very close; when he was a child, and saw himself playing children’s games with the wavy-haired man, it was as immediate and real as his adventures with Sidney, but as a teenager, he watched them fuck when they are old and going grey, thirty or forty years ahead.
Sidney clears his throat again. Zhenya focuses through the haze of premonition until the white-lipped waves of the river current and the Goddess statue placed in the center of the river before them slide into focus. “Greetings, Mother Delphinia, opener of eyes, giver of sight, deliverer of premonition,” Zhenya intones. Barely, he can see the stiff shape of Sidney’s shoulder relax in response to the beginnings of the rite. Then all of his focus is returned to the Goddess before him, and the minutes trickle away into hours under the weight of the last rites of the sybil.
The sun kisses the horizon as Zhenya intones, “Purify my mind. Purify my sight. Purify my soul. All so that I may offer you my mind, my sight, my life. I give you my entirety so that you may do with it as you will.” Zhenya prostrates himself, and faintly, he can see the shift of movement and hear the rustle of fabric as Sidney follows. “Hail to Mother Delphinia. So be it.”
They rise as one and turn. Behind them stands the entire temple-- sybils and priests and acolytes-- arrayed in the snow in lines away from Zhenya like beams falling from the sun. They raise their hands as one and chorus at Zhenya, “Hail to Delphinia!” Zhenya nods awkwardly, cringing inside from the number of expectant eyes trained upon him, as Sybil Sergei steps forward from the crowd. He is the oldest Sybil amongst the collective, and by tradition he will dress Zhenya in the clothes he carries in his arms in the absence of a Consort.
Yet-- against all tradition, Sidney steps forward with a belligerent and proud tilt to his chin. He does not join the line of Sybils where he should, behind Alex and before Beau, but instead holds his ground between Seryozha and Zhenya. Sidney and Seryozha stare at each other for a long moment, before Seryozha nods and takes a half-step backwards.
Zhenya’s heart thrums in fear as Sidney approaches. His mouth is too dry to form words; the enormity of what he is about to do has hit him all at once. It will be nearly two months before he sees another mortal, and that is if he is very skilled and very lucky. Sidney’s eyes are soft and understanding as he approaches Zhenya, and his hands are gentle as he unlatches Zhenya’s cloak and pulls Zhenya’s toga until it falls from his shoulder. Sidney kneels, almost in supplication, to tug down the rest of the toga, and Zhenya looks down at the top of his head. A gust of wind blows a handful of snow between them, and it glitters with a snow-white bear and curly black hair.
Sidney is now pulling at Zhenya’s belt as he thinks about the premonitions. Never has the wavy-haired man appeared so frequently in Zhenya’s second sight. Perhaps this means they will meet soon, Zhenya thinks to himself, and he ignores the thought that follows: perhaps that means I will meet the snow-white bear soon as well.
Sidney drops Zhenya’s belt and pulls his tunic over his head. The wind bites at every exposed inch of Zhenya, and shamefully, he shivers. Barely, he resists the urge to cross his arms or place his hands over his cock. His teeth chatter as Sidney works at his sandals, and the cold only grows worse as his bare feet touch the ice-sharp snow. Sidney looks up, a question in his eyes, and Zhenya manages a shuddering nod. Sidney hooks his fingers into the waist of Zhenya’s loincloth and tugs it free, the pads of his fingers dancing along as softly as the snowflakes kissing Zhenya’s skin as he unwraps it and leaves Zhenya completely bare.
Zhenya’s body shudders, a vicious spasm, and Sidney hurries to his feet to snatch the new loincloth from Matt. For a journey like Zhenya’s, no plain wrapped loincloth will do. This one is tough leather sewn into shape, a large waist hole and two smaller holes for his legs, lined with the richest white fox fur. Zhenya wraps a hand around Sidney’s shoulder to steady himself-- limbs now shaking continuously with the cold, fingers and toes quickly shading towards blue-- as he steps into the loincloth that Sidney holds out for him. Sidney scrambles back to Seryozha as soon as Zhenya is on both feet, snatching at leg wraps made in just the same leather-and-fur as the loincloth and kneeling again to tie them on Zhenya. They are wide enough to wrap fully twice around Zhenya’s legs, and go from his ankles to the crease where his legs join his hips. Sidney leaves enough looseness in the knees so that Zhenya can bend them a little but still leave them protected. Zhenya’s body is so cold it is slow to warm the fur, but even cutting the wind upon his legs is enough to garner relief.
Next comes the strange boots now on top of the pile. They are like proper military marching boots, but they are made of fur-lined leather and the laces on top hold down more leather and fur, wrapping Zhenya’s feet entirely and leaving nothing open to the wind. Sidney picks up one foot, Zhenya again using his shoulder to balance, and pulls around the corner of his toga to carefully wipe the snow-damp from Zhenya’s foot. Zhenya can barely see the furrow of concentration between Sidney’s eyebrows as he focuses on the task. Only once he is completely assured Zhenya’s foot is dry does Sid slide it into a sock he magics from nowhere and then the boot, tightening the laces enough that it will not fall down before moving onto the next. Then, he tucks each sock under the leg wrap and each leg wrap into the boot, ensuring an overlap so the wind cannot sneak in, before tying the boots tightly.
Zhenya bites back a gasp as his toes snap and tingle, coming alive again with the warmth he feels. He allows himself the luxury of stamping his feet a few times as Sidney fetches the next items, and slowly, sluggishly, he feels the blood moving in his legs. Sidney yanks a rich woolen shift over Zhenya’s head, a little ruthless now as he tugs Zhenya’s arms through the sleeves. It’s not without reason; Zhenya’s fingers are fully blue now, and haste is more important than kindness if he wishes to depart with all of his limbs still attached. Following the shift is a tunic, almost knee-length and of leather-and-fur, with a belt holding a beltpouch and a wicked gladiatorial dolch with a blade nearly as long as Zhenya’s forearm. After that is a tough long-sleeved robe, complete with a long, stiff hood edged in wolf-fur and paired with thick mittens, and finally a cloak that Sidney bundles into Zhenya’s arms.
All together it is too warm now, but Zhenya knows that even with the cloak added it will not be warm enough as he ascends on the Oracle’s Journey. Sidney steps back to survey his work; his eyes glisten as he looks at Zhenya, and from the moisture springs forth revelation: cold-hands blurring-vision gasping-for-air-that-isn’t-there.
“Return to us an Oracle, or leave your life upon the mountain,” Sidney declares. His voice trembles, and it’s more a plea than a command. He grabs the back of Zhenya’s neck, tugging until he can reach Zhenya’s face and push an insistent kiss against Zhenya’s brow. Sidney pulls back to stare at Zhenya for a long moment, the soft hazel of his eyes gone dark with indescribable worry. Zhenya’s heart thumps as his entire body roils with sensation, burning cold and freezing heat and fear and exhilaration and confusion, and he cannot break Sidney’s gaze.
Sidney drops his eyes and turns abruptly, striding past his appointed place and back into the temple. A whisper ripples through the assembly, but the ceremony is complete, despite the deviations from tradition. Now, the only thing left is to depart.
And so Zhenya does, trudging up the riverbank as he holds the cloak close, weak comfort. Should he turn and look, he would see the rest of the temple, still standing and waiting and watching until he disappears from sight. He doesn’t turn; the only face he wishes to see is no longer there.
The Sybil’s Shelf.
It stands nearly halfway up the mountain of the goddesses, a treacherous jut of ice and rock standing proud and furious above the world. It is visible from the temple as a glittering white bifurcation of the ripple of snow and rock that is Olympus. It is easy to see, not because of cairns or markers but because the air is so thin that light travels swiftly. Only nine people have stood upon the Sybil’s Shelf and returned to tell the tale, thus completing the Oracle’s Journey. Dozens more have attempted it; their bodies line the path upwards, eternal tributes to goddesses always thirsty for mortal sacrifice. Only one ascended without descent and did not sleep among the snow, welcomed instead into the hall of the goddesses as one of theirs. Zhenya doesn’t expect such a welcome for him; he barely expects to survive the Shelf, let alone reaching further. Perhaps he will be no more than a new marker upon the path, a sentinel on the path of holiness, ever watchful, ever silent. After all, he knows the way like every sybil before him knew it, not written down but scattered in a kaleidoscope of visions spinning out of the snow and river: left at the prone body clothed in orange, up past the sitting body half-buried in snow, along the icefall carefully unless you wish to join the pile of bodies at the bottom. The dead lead the living, and Zhenya can only hope they won’t lead him astray and take him into their ranks.
In truthfulness, even with the help of visions it is not a straightforward journey, as anything asked of men by the goddesses. By sunrise Zhenya has arrived at the lowest camp of the four, tucked next to a wicked thousand-foot waterfall and blessedly full of provisions and firewood. It is the only camp that has such luxuries; every camp above will be stocked only by what he is able to carry up on his own back. Again and again he will journey upwards, teaching his body to breathe thin air and filling each camp with enough supplies for it and the ones above. He will retrace the same path many times, first camp to second and back down, then up to third and back down, and to the fourth and back down for a week’s rest before taking the final dive upward past the fourth camp and to the Sybil’s Shelf to be measured by the goddess.
Zhenya knows how to ascend the mountain, yes, but that is no guarantee he will live past even the first attempt to reach the next camp. An avalanche, an icefall, even a single misstep could land him among the bodies that mark the path, perfectly preserved by the cold. All that protects him now are the whims of the goddesses. Should he be judged worthy, he will live. Should he not-- well, he won’t live to know it.
Time disappears as he works his way up and down between camps. One day, two, three, and then he loses count, living only by the rhythms of the sun and the flesh. When he is rested, he ascends again, hauling as much as he can bear. After the first week, he knows what he can bear has dropped significantly. Cold kills flesh in great ways and subtle, and Zhenya’s appetite has been slim amongst the snow drifts.
The route between first and second camp is truly vertical, slick with ice from the waterfall spray. Enterprising Sybils that went before left their mark in the form of rope lines, but it is still exhausting and terrifying work to climb. It levels out into an ice field three-quarters of a mile long, through which the river burbles and skips-- which is no less dangerous than the climb by the falls, just different-- at the beginning of which is the second camp, and the end the third camp. The trail to the fourth camp and the Shelf is deceptively simple, carved wide and flat around the river by the will of the goddesses. The only obstacles are the bodies littering the path; the greatest enemy at this point are the weaknesses of the body and mind.
Zhenya knows well those weaknesses, now; it has been… weeks? Months? since he was last at the temple-- last seeing Sidney-- last being warm and well-fed-- and every inch of him aches, from his hair to his teeth to his bones to his soul. His sight has grown steadily foggier, the world going blurry and premonitions nearly nonexistent, leaving his skin crawling with the unfamiliar sensation of mostly unimpeded sight amongst the water and snow. His eyes jitter in their sockets at the fuzziness of distant objects as he blinks away against the harsh and endless wind, the halos that spin around the sun and snowglare. Eyes are the only part of him that he cannot wrap in fur and leather, and so they grow weak so quickly. Too quickly.
He wonders if this is how sybils die, going blind to prophecy and then losing the will to live.
Zhenya knows he must make the push now to the Shelf. Not even returning to the first camp has been restoring his sight; his fate has grown impatient, so now he will go to meet it. He ducks inside the camp for one last meal before he departs. He picks listlessly at the food, now only able to stomach the finest and whitest sweet bread gone rock-hard in the cold. He manages to eat half of a fire-softened loaf-- barely enough to break his fast normally, now enough to leave him overfull and nauseous-- and leaves the other half for his descent.
The Shelf is but half a mile above him. The path is wide, though steeply sloped, and Zhenya hobbles up it. He wraps the cloak as tightly as possible about himself, tucking his chin into his tunic and lowering his hood against the ever-present wind, blinking away the tears in his woefully exposed eyes. Still, the cold leaks in elsewhere, clever enough to find every slim gap in protection and bite into the flesh beneath. Even the slow, ponderous walk he’s adopted leaves him gasping for breath, head pounding and ears ringing, a restless cough stirring in his lungs every few steps until his ribs ache and creak.
It takes four hours to stagger up to the shelf, stopping only when the coughs grow so great he nearly over-balances. Zhenya lifts his head-- tucked down against the ever-present wind, too exhausted to fight it-- and if he were less exhausted, he would gasp.
The Sybil’s Shelf stretches before him. In the center burbles the Spring of Delphinia, spreading out into a rippling lake edged with teeth of ice. He turns, and the entire world sits below him, blurry from exhaustion and cold. Is this what the goddesses feel like? Zhenya can barely see the temple so far below, a tiny dot of grey alongside the glittering ribbon of the river. He wonders if Sidney is looking up at the mountain right now, if he can see the indistinct dark dot of Zhenya against the white of snow. But no-- he must look like just another stone. And perhaps Sidney does not look, anyway.
Zhenya turns his back to the world beneath him. A great thirst tickles his throat, and suddenly the clear blue water of the spring looks like the finest wine. He steps towards it, but hesitates as he remembers-- there is a challenge before he says the invocation and drinks the water and anoints himself-- and that is what saves his life.
Something white and furious streaks across Zhenya’s vision. For a second he thinks it a hallucination or a trick of his failing eyes, but he turns to look anyway. There stands a bear, all white except for enraged, dark eyes, tall enough on all four legs that its head is level with Zhenya’s. The bear roars. It pushes back onto its hind legs. It stares at Zhenya: a challenge.
Zhenya realizes he has drawn the dolch. He blinks away streaks of blackness as he flexes his fingers; they ache with the cold and now bite with endless prickles. Distantly, he thinks-- I will have to be very, very lucky many times. It must only be lucky once.
The sun emerges from the clouds, and Zhenya squints, cursing. The glare flashes across his vision and carries on it prophecy, for the first time in days-- lunging bear, biting at left forearm -- and Zhenya reacts instinctively. He’s half a second faster than the bear, catching it on the snout with the dolch before it can bite. It recoils with a scream, dropping to all fours as it retreats out of arm’s length and paces restlessly around Zhenya.
Zhenya feels his chest heaving as he abruptly tips, dizziness dragging the ground towards him. He spreads his legs and crouches a little lower, turning to follow the bear. It’s dripping blood onto the pristine snow, a trail of shockingly red droplets in a colorless world. Another flash of sunlight hits Zhenya, this time from the lake, and he glances up and sees the future on a ripple of water. Leaping, paws wide, mouth open in a snarl --
Again Zhenya reacts before the bear leaps, holding the dolch above him with both hands, point angled towards the mountain. The dolch drives into the roof of the bear’s mouth, catching it mid-leap. The weight of the bear gone suddenly limp from shock carries them both to the ground, Zhenya trapped between its paws so he cannot roll away. But the bear is more preoccupied with the knife-point emerging from his snout than with Zhenya. With another inhuman scream, the bear wrenches itself free and scrambles away.
Zhenya pants, curling up into a coughing fit. He can hear the bear moaning some feet away, over the hiss of the ever-present wind. His vision goes black, hopefully from the force of the coughs. His face feels stiff and swollen, and now his arms buzz uncomfortably up to the shoulder. It’s becoming harder to grip the dolch. Zhenya is running out of time. If he does not prevail on the next encounter…
Eventually, he stifles the coughs, rolling to his hands and knees. There is a starburst of blood in the snow under his hands. He squints at it, and it glitters with the silver of moonlight. Some of it spreads in a puddle across a chunk of ice kicked up by the fight. On all fours, a mad dash, the final attempt--
Zhenya kneels, raising his left arm across his face, and the bear takes the bait. It clamps down, smelling victory, but Zhenya’s other hand is already moving. It’s a vicious slash across the neck, deep enough to scrape bone. The bear’s jaws go slack just before the bone snaps, and it collapses.
Zhenya collapses too. He can’t tell if his eyes are closed or blinded. The throbbing of his arm grows sharper, and the haze clears enough for him to see his own blood mingling with the bear’s upon the snow. It glitters like moonlight on ice. Zhenya thinks of the portraits of old Oracles with the blood-red tattoos upon their skin and hears his own voice reciting the ritual words: And so I stand in supplication, anointed in moonlight and blood....
Zhenya gasps for air. Coughs again, as an endless vise tightens around his ribs. Settles back upon his legs as the wheezing turns to gasps again. He tries once, twice, thrice to remove his right glove with his left hand, but his movements are fumbling and weak. With what little fury is left in him, he raises his right hand to his mouth and tears off the glove with his teeth. He lets it drop onto his lap as he slides his hand toward the blood.
The second the tips of his fingers dip into the blood, a flood of-- bitterness, or hysteria, some great and unidentifiable avalanche of burning, acrid feelings-- courses through Zhenya. His hand is a blurred shape, and he watches it move, fascinated, as if someone else controls it. Inspiration strikes alongside emotion, and he jerks his hand up as quickly as he can, closing his eyes and drawing his bloodied thumb in a straight line from temple to temple, following the seams of his eyes with a line that thickens over the arch of his nose. He’s not sure if he’s asking for a blessing to bring back his sight, or cursing his Sight, but-- it’s done now.
Zhenya’s hand falls back into his lap, and from nowhere there is a flash of moonlight and the endless, trembling toll of a bell. Zhenya shouts-- impossible to hear over the bell tone, but the scream burns at his throat-- and suddenly he feels alive. Air sits easily in his lungs, a deep breath satiating him in a way it hasn’t in weeks. The aches and prickling and numbness disappear, and he sobs at the sensation of being warm and comforted. His mind sharpens, and only then does Zhenya realizes how dull it had grown. So too his sight sharpens, shedding the blurred veil and letting every snowflake come into unnatural focus.
The ringing in his ears fades as Zhenya looks down at his lap. He slowly flexes his hand, half-expecting the crushing exhaustion to return at the slightest movement, but he remains revitalized. Now, he can focus enough to return to another inspiration, tugging at his other glove and revealing his wrist. He dips his fingertips back into the blood and begins to draw upon his skin. It is not complicated, but Zhenya is precise; he will live with the results of this for the rest of his days. Two curving lines, thicker ends lying under his wrist and upon his pulse and thinning out in the delicate space below the back of his hand. Pairs of elongated leaves follow, created by quick little dashes of his fingers.
A laurel wreath: a shackle. For surely he is bound and trapped as much as any slave, the extension of a goddess instead of a being of his own. Quickly, laughing with joy at the agile dance of his limbs, Zhenya fetters the other wrist and then both ankles. He pauses to stare at his left wrist. The blood is still wet and glittering in the harsh sunlight, yet it has not smeared. He pokes delicately at a leaf on the underside of his wrist, and it remains stubbornly whole. He wraps his right palm about his wrist and twists, but still the wreath is unchanged.
One final thought strikes Zhenya. He yanks down the hood of his robe, but that is not enough. His cloak, robe, tunic, and shift each join the pile of his shoes and leg-wraps. He is bare in the snow except for his loincloth, and he throws back his head and laughs at the absurdity of it all. He dips his hand in the blood, stretching out his left arm to balance, and he sees the mark of the bear bite, no longer an open wound but scabbed over. He refocuses; this mark is harder to draw, for he cannot watch his fingers trace out the shapes, but finally a collar of laurel rests over his clavicles.
Only then does Zhenya step towards the spring, joyously naked. It ripples and glimmers, throwing out rays of white light as he approaches, and yet no prophecy arrives on the water for the first time in his life. He stands at the shore, curling his toes around the edge of the ice shard beneath his feet, folding his arms respectfully, and bowing his head as he takes a deep breath. “Hear me, O Delphinia, for I am your faithful servant,” he recites, the carefully memorized words rising up like bubbles in the sea. “I am the greatest of Sybils, pure and dedicated, and so I accepted the Ordeal of the Oracle. As you have commanded, I have climbed Olympus, I have survived the cold, I have defeated your warrior, and only now do I ask for your blessing. And so I stand in supplication, anointed in moonlight and blood, and await your verdict.”
There is a moment not of noise, but of pure, crystalline silence. Zhenya looks up, and a woman-- a goddess -- stands upon the burbling font of the spring. Zhenya is not worldly, and perhaps he is even the opposite, sent to the temple at such a young age. But if there is one thing that he knows well, it is the face of his goddess. Yet to see the true manifestation before him is like comparing gold to brass. Delphinia’s visage is more ethereal and beautiful, her hair flowing in a wind off of another world, her movements more graceful than any mortal’s. Most surprising of all, though, is her stature; as she approaches, Zhenya realizes she is fully the height of two men, and he falls to his knees in adoration.
Do you enjoy my Blessing, Sybil? Delphinia asks, and Zhenya collapses forward, unable to look at her any longer as her voice reverberates in his head. Every temple acolyte knows about Blessings, the hand and power of a goddess laid upon a mortal head. Zhenya wonders when her goodwill will expire. Will he die from its removal, standing naked halfway up Olympus? Or will the Blessing follow him down the mountain?
She asked a question, Zhenya dimly remembers. He should answer, but his tongue is dry, his throat stuck, so he mouths soundless words at the ice and water below him.
Stand, Sybil, Delphinia says, and Zhenya stands. He shakes from head to toe, face flushing, as she examines him at length. My, you are a pretty little one, aren’t you? All long limbs and delicate bones-- childish and charming. Are you sure you would be an Oracle and not a goddess-consort?
“Yes, o subduer of time,” Zhenya says, each word shaking and high. Surprisingly, he does not even consider the offer before denying it. He thinks of the temple, the wavy-haired man, the Oracle’s tripod that has stood empty for a score of years. He thinks of his friends, the quiet joys of mortals, the duties that await him. He thinks of Sidney, and his answer is: I am theirs as much as I am yours.
She sighs and gives a petulant flip of her head, but blessedly does not press the issue. If you insist. The life of a consort is sweet, you know-- even more so than that of an Oracle-Consort, for as my consort you would have no mortal worries, no aging-- her voice twists up into a question, but Zhenya shakes his head again. Stubborn! Fine, I will return you to the mortal realm. Consider it nothing more than a loan for the time being. Perhaps your mind will change after you have grown old and frail.
Delphinia stands before him-- above him-- a smirking vision of immortal beauty and power and grace. Zhenya should be drowning in her presence, but with the mention of an Oracle-Consort all he can think of is curling black hair, gripped between his fingers, smoothed beneath his palm, tickling his chest. Delphinia watches him think, and Zhenya sees Knowing in her eyes, the span of the star-scattered heavens spinning through her pupils. He feels laid bare before her, his thoughts as tiny and plain to her as the movement of ants upon their trail is to him. But he holds firm, as much as he can, and fills his heart with the simple comfort of the temple, the kindnesses and cruelties of mortals, the gentle kiss that Sidney left upon his brow before he departed. It is all that he has ever cared for, and all that he has ever desired to serve as an Oracle.
Your heart is true and valiant, pretty one, Delphinia says. Zhenya feels his cheeks flush. You have completed the Oracle’s ordeal. Scry in my holy pool, and then return down Olympus and take the seat of my power upon your mortal realm. She bends down and kisses Zhenya upon the forehead. He falls back with a shout; all of the earth and the heavens descends into his head in one seething mass. Vision after vision strikes, godly battles and haughty empresses and blank-faced priests and avalanches and rituals and laughing children and and and--
When he sits up, it is as if every memory leaks from his mind. Zhenya is nothing; he is a blank slate; he is born anew. The goddess is gone, and the spring now lies still and sparkling, a silvery plate of perfect reflection. Zhenya bends over it curiously, and he blinks. He sees.
An empress, demanding and furious; behind her lies rot and ruin, flies spinning lazily over fields sown with salt. A mob full of shadowy figures lurks, and within it shines the cold reality of a blade pointed at her back. She is oblivious, screaming unintelligible invective. She will die soon.
The Temple of Delphinia, flush with activity and joyous noise. Gongs and bells ring out over chanted prayers, acolytes bustle, Blessings glisten in the river and on the walls and between the priests: all the signs of health and happiness abound. Yet a dark cloud sits above and none acknowledge it. They go about their business as if the sun shines fully, but the shadow of the cloud grows wide over the temple. The bells falter, the chants grow desperate and the acolytes hurry about hollow-faced and hunched. The cloud goes green, twisting into the furious expression of the Empress. There is a feeling of that moment, when the dice have been rattled and cast and the world waits with bated breath to see the result.
A single ray of light breaks through the clouds. It settles around Zhenya, and it whispers save us as it dances about him in the colors of prophecy.
Zhenya blinks, and the prophecy is gone; all prophecy is gone. He blinks, and there is the wavy-haired man. Blink. Gone. Unbidden, tears spring into his eyes, for no longer will the prophecy control him.
The moment breaks as the spring stirs back into motion. A wind starts up, and it breaks through the Blessing; his back ripples in goosebumps, and he scrambles on his last burst of energy back to the pile of clothing next to the bear carcass. He begins to shiver as he hastily layers on his clothes, but his mind is elsewhere. What empress? What is she doing that is so dire that her poison spreads to the temple? When will she come to Zhenya? And most terrifying of all-- what must he do to alter her course?
Zhenya yanks on his last glove and pulls up his hood as the Blessing fades enough that his limbs grow weak. The bright day grows dim in his eyes and a fine tremble starts in his limbs. His fingers grow numb and the beginnings of a cough tickle at his throat. But above all, despair settles on him like a lead cloak.
Return to us an Oracle, or leave your life upon the mountain. The memory of Sidney’s voice echoes in Zhenya’s head. He is the Oracle now, his foggy mind realizes with a shock. That is enough to get him standing; the thought of disappointing Sidney, of staying on this mountain and never returning to him, propels Zhenya down the slope. He can barely see more than a few lengths in front of his feet, if even that. He holds in his heart the drumbeat of Sid, Sid, Sid. It matches the high, thready beat of his heart and the shuffling steps of his feet through the snow as Sidney becomes his anchor in a stormy sea, his purpose, his heart. There’s nothing else in his mind but the sight of Sidney’s smile, hazel eyes and pinkened cheeks and the mischievous giggle that comes along with it.
One step after another, Zhenya makes it halfway down before the sun sets. He finds the second camp in the dying light of the sun, squinting desperately through the haze of dusk and blindness. He sleeps-- or at least, he doesn’t remember the next few hours, aside from flashes of restlessness-- and he rises again in the pre-dawn dimness. He eats as much as he can in the form of tiny bites of bread, interspersed with skin-warm water, and emerges from the tent.
Zhenya finally understands why it is said most die on the descent and not the ascent. All he can think of is his urgency to return; he is making sloppy mistakes, and he knows it. He missteps and goes flying across the ice field, skidding dangerously close to the foaming rapids of the river before he manages to hook a rope about a particularly large ice-spike and halt himself. He coughs for a long moment before he can stand. It’s easy to feel the new bruises and cuts from the rapid descent, but the only fear that can get through the fog is about the way the bear bite has opened and is bleeding sluggishly.
Somehow, he makes it to the waterfall. Somehow, he slides down a rope, bouncing off of the ice wall to slow his descent. He collapses in an uncoordinated mess of limbs as he hits the ground too hard, sprawling across the snow with a grunt. A thought strikes him-- what if he rolls the rest of the way down the mountain, tumbling carelessly along the path, like a child rolling down a hill after the first snow of winter-- and he laughs until he coughs. His ribs ache. His arm aches. It is, in fact, far more difficult to find something that doesn’t ache. His forehead, Zhenya finally decides, is the only ache-free portion of his body.
This is how men die, Zhenya remembers. Lying in the snow, daydreaming, instead of moving towards safety. He doesn’t want to get up. Sid, his heart beats. He gets up. His knees scream at him as he totters on numb feet, and his ribs and shoulders and back crackle painfully. Zhenya’s vision is restricted to a single length in front of him. He puts his head down and he keeps going. Return to us an Oracle, or leave your life upon the mountain.
Time passes. An infinity or a second: it’s impossible to tell. Zhenya tries to count the labored spasms of his heart to mark the passing of seconds-- Sid, Sid, Sid -- but he loses count at 128, and then 74, and then 59, and he gives up. Gasp - step - Sid - exhale - step - Sid - again and again and again. It feels like a dream, the one where Zhenya runs and runs and runs and doesn’t move, desperate and trapped as he fruitlessly pounds his feet against the ground. All he can think of is Sidney, a beacon in his mind, everything he returns to wrapped in one tidy package. Sidney becomes the Temple to Zhenya, he becomes the avatar of brotherhood, he becomes every joy in life rolled into one brilliant smile.
And then-- a noise. Not the deafening, echoing scream of wind and snow of the mountain, but the faint chiming of the great temple bell. Zhenya jerks his head up, but the darkness encroaches even more now. When he looks down, he cannot see the snow. When he looks up, he cannot see the sun. There is nothing except the ringing of bells to guide him. And ring they do, joyous peals stacking on top of each other. This is not usual, Zhenya realizes fuzzily. Is it a holiday? Do they have a great visitor?
Me, Zhenya thinks. I am the great visitor. The bells ring for him, the newest Oracle. He feels the wet, chill bite of a tear upon his face. Under the bells, there is shouting. He strains to listen for one voice among many, but it is not there, and he staggers under the disappointed swoop of his heart. Still, he pushes forward, carried by hope. The shouts grow nearer; he must have passed the first camp some time ago and is on the final swooping path to the temple.
Zhenya stumbles as something gives below his foot. The pause in the steady crunch, crunch of his feet as he lands on his knees reveals the distant and hurried footfalls of another person biting through the snow, growing louder and louder in approach as Zhenya struggles to stand again. He falls, another bit of ice sliding beneath his foot. Zhenya shouts in surprise as hands catch him, gripping tight about his upper arms and steadying him. He tries to say something, ask a question, but nothing escapes his throat except an aspirated moan.
“Zhenya,” Sidney says, soft and reverent and relieved and shaking and worried. The word splashes against Zhenya’s skin like the first bloom of a steaming hot bath, and he sobs soundlessly, groping forward to find Sidney, to feel him solid and true under his hand. “Zhenya, what’s wrong?” Sidney says, voice cracking, but he wraps his arms around Zhenya until they meet across his back anyway. “What happened? Are you well?”
“I can’t see,” Zhenya gasps, and the chill of tear-tracks run down his face. “I am the Oracle and I cannot see.” He can feel Sidney’s gasp against his chest. He whines as Sidney pulls away and settles as he feels the warm brush of Sidney’s exhale against his cheek.
“Your eyes…” Sidney says softly. “They’re purple, Zhenya. They are frozen.” Sidney exhales sharply, muttering a prayer for health as his thumb smoothes away a tear on Zhenya’s cheek. “Can you feel all of your fingers and your toes? Your ears?”
“Fine,” Zhenya says. He feels the world tip under his feet. The rising tide of shouts begins to fade as he slips from consciousness. “Just eyes--”
Zhenya collapses, and the last thing he remembers is Sidney catching him.
Zhenya comes to as a wave of shocking heat floods over him. Instantly, he’s bent forward in a coughing fit, shaking from shoulders to knees as he wheezes. More than one pair of hands holds him up, comforting pressure against his body as his legs go too weak to hold him up. One hand circles soothingly along Zhenya’s back until he shudders to a stop, panting in high, short breaths. He cannot feel the warmth of the hand through the many layers still separating skin from skin, and he feels a prickle at the back of his throat in response.
Slowly, the points of pressure of hands withdraw, until there are just two left. Zhenya breathes, each gasp coming easier than the previous. Heavy heat clings to his face, his throat, his lungs, and he realizes: he must be in the bathing chambers.
“Do I smell that bad?” Zhenya says, and it’s a weak joke but Sidney laughs, wild and free and relieved.
“I regret to inform you that yes, you definitely do,” Sidney says. “I’m sorry, I thought that the heat of the room might be such a shock to you. But with your eyes--” He stops short.
“It’s nice,” Zhenya says. His heart thrums, sweat breaking out across every inch of skin at the stress of unfamiliar warmth. It feels like it’s been lifetimes since he’s been this warm, and the layers of fur itch unbearably in the heat. “Can… can you stay and help?” It is on the surface a purely practical request, he knows, which is what gives him the courage to ask. But mostly he asks because he yearns for the comfort of Sidney’s voice and gentle touches.
A long silence hovers between them, Zhenya’s stomach twisting with panic, before Sidney softly says, “You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried,” and begins. A memory twigs in Zhenya’s mind, foggy as it is, as he feels Sidney’s hands gently unwrapping each layer of his clothing. It’s held in place from a month and a half of filth, and the warmth of the bathing chamber causes Zhenya’s nose to awaken and discover just how foul he smells. Even with his nose full of vile odors and eyes full of sparking darkness, though, Sidney’s hands are just the same as the sending-off ceremony, considerate and soft and meticulous as they remove crusted layer after layer.
Sidney pauses after he’s tugged the cotton shift off. Zhenya makes a questioning noise, and then he feels the tickle of a fingertip tracing over the laurel wreath drawn in red around his neck. “Delphinia’s blood and water,” Sidney swears on a whispers. “The gossip is wild about the temple, if you have any Oracle’s marks beyond the one upon your eyes,” Sidney says. “Laurel wreaths! You are truly blessed.” Sidney’s hand disappears, and there is the tell-tale sound of him kissing his thumbnail. “I’ve always wondered-- how the marks appear--”
“You know I cannot tell you,” Zhenya says gently.
“Yes,” Sidney says on a sigh, and then-- “Oh! Your arm!” He cradles Zhenya’s forearm at elbow and wrist, and perhaps he bends close to examine the punctures from the bear’s teeth.
“That is not all,” Zhenya says. “But it’s the worst of it. Is there a healer here?” One would hope that an onlooker would’ve announced themselves, but even if they had, Zhenya suspects he has forgotten.
“No, we are alone. It will keep until you are bathed,” Sidney says firmly. The feeling of standing up too quickly blooms in Zhenya’s head, despite not moving at all, and he sways until Sidney catches him. “Close your eyes,” Sidney implores gently. “I would like to put a cloth across them; perhaps that will help them warm more quickly.” Zhenya obeys, allowing his eyelids to slide closed, squeezing them tight to be sure, and Sidney drapes a cloth over them. He must have soaked it in the steaming water of the caldarium, for it nearly burns with heat against Zhenya’s cold, parched skin. Zhenya melts into the wall behind him him as Sidney returns to work, slowly ripping apart the ties of the sandals. He tugs Zhenya’s leg this way and that as he fights the leather, at least until his patience runs out. Zhenya hears the hiss of a blade sliding from a sheath before the sandals suddenly loosen with the softest of metallic whispers.
Next are the leg wraps, similarly sliced off. Zhenya does not feel even the slightest kiss of the blade against his skin; Sidney must be taking great care with the dolch. The oppressive itch of the leg wraps disappears and Zhenya sighs in quiet relief. All that is left is his loincloth, and Zhenya tries not to groan as he realizes he will have to stand up for Sidney to remove it, though he mostly fails.
“Are you well?” Sidney asks. Zhenya doesn’t need eyes to see how Sidney hovers; he can practically smell the cloud of worry that erupts at Zhenya’s sigh.
“Tired,” Zhenya says. “Don’t want to stand up.”
“Alright,” Sidney soothes. His hand lands on Zhenya’s flank, and Zhenya is too exhausted to flinch at the surprise. Sid slides it down to grasp at Zhenya’s hip bone as he says, “Come, lift your hips quickly.”
Zhenya grits his teeth but obeys, bracing his feet against the rough stone below to arc up enough that Sidney can tug down the loincloth. Zhenya resettles, lifting his feet one-by-one at the urging of Sidney’s hand about his ankle. And so he is laid completely bare, undressed by Sidney upon his return just as he was dressed by Sidney before his departure. It’s very-- poetic, Zhenya thinks distantly, and he suspects there may be some more temple gossip about it all.
That is a worry for another day. For right now, Sidney says, “I would like to change your cloth, but keep your eyes closed.” The cloth disappears, and there’s the tiny noises of feet upon stone as Sidney passes into the caldarium and returns. The fresh cloth is steaming hot, and Zhenya flinches a little away from it. “Too hot? Let me--” The cloth pulls away, and Zhenya feels a little breeze move over him. The cloth returns, and now it is a better temperature. “Is that good?” Sidney asks. He’s running his fingers over the cloth, smoothing it down against Zhenya’s eyelids and following the droplets of water that seep from the edges of the cloth and down Zhenya’s temples.
“Yes,” Zhenya says. He could stay here forever: warm and comforted and cared-for. He entertains the thought of asking for a bed to be set up in the tepidarium; he has had enough of being cold for a lifetime.
Sidney’s hands disappear, and Zhenya tries to no avail to track him about the room. Sidney’s hand lands on Zhenya’s forearm, and he sighs, this time in relief. “I had the oil warmed for you,” Sidney says, a little hushed. “Tell me if I am too rough with the strigil.” And so Sidney begins. He removes the cloth upon Zhenya’s eyes briefly, but the warm oil that he spreads across Zhenya’s forehead and cheeks more than make up for the lack. Sidney navigates the strigil across Zhenya’s face, neatly catching the oil that threatens to drip into Zhenya’s nose and down his neck and flicking it away. He replaces the cloth on Zhenya’s eyes and continues.
Zhenya wonders what Sidney’s expression is like as he moves on to Zhenya’s neck and shoulders, spreading oil and scraping and spreading and scraping. Zhenya really must be filthy. So-- is Sidney concentrating, brows drawn down and lips pouting slightly? Is he disgusted by the dirt, lip curled and faced turned away? Is he indifferent, mechanically performing the ritual of cleansing with no further thought of the subject? Zhenya frets; without sight or Sight he feels adrift, unmoored, buffeted by currents he does not know or understand. The easy confidence of knowing the present and the future dissipates in this oppressive darkness within his eyes, and he wonders-- will he be the first Oracle to return unseeing, never again to prophesize thanks to the price the goddess extracted from him? Abruptly, he remembers drawing a bloody thumb across his eyes, bitterness in his heart, and he winces. The goddess is always listening.
“Zhenya?” Sidney says immediately, and the motion of the strigil stops. “Did I hurt you?”
“No,” he replies, settling back against the wall. “I just-- had a thought.” He lets silence drop between them, a heavy stone into a still pond.
“Alright,” Sidney says cautiously, but doesn’t press. He has finished Zhenya’s chest and stomach, and there is a click of metal-on-stone as he sets down the strigil. Zhenya braces himself mentally for the next step-- he does not usually have a servant to bathe him, and he feels like a wild animal now, unused to intimate touch-- and there is Sidney’s hand and the warm oil upon his cock. His body is too exhausted to respond, through it struggles to attempt anyway. Sidney is so careful, spreading the oil and wiping it away with a soft cloth. Zhenya’s heart skips a beat; he hope that the wavy-haired man will treat him with such reverent gentleness. For a second, he is blindingly furious with the goddesses, that they give him Sidney and expect him to somehow welcome the wavy-haired man with open arms when perfection is already within reach.
That is a thought that must be saved for another day, Zhenya knows. He is too tired, and too weak, and too overcome, and too afraid to face it today. He lets it flutter off, a tiny starling of revelation that threatens to return as a eagle, beak viciously hooked to rip Zhenya’s heart from his chest.
Sidney finishes scraping Zhenya’s legs and feet and asks, “Can you lay out across the bench on your stomach?” Zhenya nods, so Sidney grasps his arm and guides him sideways, tipping over like a drunk that found the bottom of an amphora all on his own. The cloth falls from Zhenya’s eyes as Sidney places a hand on his flank and encourages him to stretch full-length across the bench. He buries his face into his arms, crossed together on the bench, as the rhythm of smoothing oil and scraping returns. Zhenya’s mind clears, finally beyond exhaustion into some half-dead state where thoughts cannot venture.
Perhaps he falls asleep for a moment, for it seems that Sidney is done with scraping too quickly. “Can you move to the caldarium?” Sidney asks. His voice is right in Zhenya’s ear; Zhenya can feel the tickle of Sidney’s exhale against his cheek.
Zhenya groans, though it’s only half drama. “Carry me,” he begs piteously, not above a little manipulation when Sidney is being so conceding.
“Don’t be mad when I squeeze you too hard and you go flying from my arms, o greasiest of Oracles,” Sidney teases. Zhenya doesn’t respond-- wittiness is far beyond him in this moment-- and Sidney helps him up until he is sitting and then tucks in close beside him, allowing Zhenya to sling his arm over Sidney’s shoulders. They shuffle to the caldarium, Zhenya’s eyes still closed, and he staggers a little as the rich wet heat of the caldarium rolls over him. It feels almost stifling, and he panics briefly at the thick, heavy way the air sits in his throat. Sidney squeezes him about the ribs once, reassuringly, and Zhenya forces in a deep breath.
“The bath is within reach of your foot,” Sidney says. “Stretch it out and find it.” Zhenya obeys, running his foot forward along the tile until it disappears. “There, you have found it?” Sidney asks, and Zhenya nods. “Good. A little bit forward, and step down--” Somehow, they manage to land Zhenya on a bench within the bath, and he stretches out with a sigh. The water is too hot and it’s the best thing Zhenya has ever felt. “Another cloth for your eyes,” Sidney warns, and then a cloth is draped across half-burning skin. “The healers say you shouldn’t soak for more than a quarter hour. But if you decide you must get out before then, I am here.”
“Thank you,” Zhenya mumbles, barely audible. Sidney presses his hand to the crown of Zhenya’s head before withdrawing.
Again time disappears too quickly, and Sidney is calling, “Zhenya? It is time to get out.” Zhenya grumbles, but Sidney is implacable, looping his hands underneath Zhenya’s armpits and tugging until Zhenya concedes and gets his feet under himself to stand. Out from the water and into the tepidarium, which now feels chill and unforgiving after the caldarium.
“I am too cold,” Zhenya complains.
“I have a towel,” Sidney counters. “Patience, Zhenya.” He puts deed to word immediately, wrapping a towel about Zhenya’s shoulders and allowing him to cling to it as he kneels with another and begins to dry Zhenya’s feet and legs.
“I am going to stay in here to sleep,” Zhenya declares. “Bring me a cushion.”
“I think not,” Sidney says tartly. “You are sleeping in a proper bed, after you eat a good meal, both of which will occur outside of the baths, thank you.”
“You are an evil taskmaster,” Zhenya complains. “Who said that you could order me about with such impudence? Did I not return the Oracle as you asked me to?”
“Yes, you did, and I decided that I could order you about,” Sidney says. “Are you ready to dress?” He doesn’t threaten Zhenya; he doesn’t say, you are blind and dependent on me, so do you have any choice but to listen?
Zhenya’s heart grows a little more tender, and he says, “Yes.” Yes, I will follow your directions. Yes, you may touch me as you will. Yes, I am here with you because we both wish to be here.
Sidney starts by wrapping a loincloth about Zhenya’s waist, and it’s indulgent, linen feeling like the softest cloth of the goddesses after a month and a half of sweaty, filthy, matted fur against his skin. The tunic that follows is just the same, and Sidney eschews a toga for a soft woolen robe tied snugly about Zhenya’s waist. As he cinches it, Zhenya’s stomach lets out a mighty gurgle, and he realizes with surprise that he is hungry.
Sidney laughs, soft and high, and pats Zhenya’s stomach. “Yes, food is next, and then sleep,” he says. He takes Zhenya around the shoulders, guiding him forward from the tepidarium into what should be the apodyterium but-- Sidney dressed him in the tepidarium? And now that he thinks of it, the path from the tepidarium to the caldarium was too short for the temple’s public bath, as was the path from the tepidarium to this new room…
“Where are we?” Zhenya asks. He’s not panicking, but he’s close; exhaustion clouds him, nudging calmness out of the way in the face of the unknown.
“The Oracle’s chambers,” Sidney says, a little puzzled. “We were in your private bath, and now we are in the sitting room just outside it. I had a meal sent for that is waiting on you, and then I will take you to your bed.”
“The Oracle’s chambers?” Zhenya asks, discomfited. “But I have not been confirmed yet!”
“None doubt it,” Sidney says firmly, with an undertone of and if any decide they do, they must face me first. “The last thing the temple needs is all the acolytes and priests and sybils running to the baths to gawk at you while you rest from the ordeal. You will rest and recover in privacy, and they can gawk all they wish at the confirmation.”
“When is it scheduled?” Zhenya presses as he frets. What time is it? Is he expected to do it tomorrow morning?
“Two days hence,” Sidney says. “And all expect you to do nothing but sleep and eat in these chambers until then. I will have to go and manage the preparations after your meal tonight, but the servants have had a mighty fight over who would serve you for the next two days, so you will be well-attended in my absence.”
“Shouldn’t Sybil Sergei be arranging the ceremony?” Zhenya asks, in a poor bid to conceal his petulance that Sidney will be yanked away from him. Sidney tugs him forward, not answering immediately in favor of settling Zhenya on a lounge.
“It was deemed… more appropriate… that I organize the confirmation,” Sidney finally says.
“But that is not the tradition,” Zhenya presses. It seems urgent, suddenly, and he is too stupid with exhaustion to wait and be diplomatic. He must know why, and now, because it is important.
“If you wish for tradition, then I will step aside for Seryozhato make arrangements,” Sidney says stiffly.
“No!” Zhenya says. That isn’t-- that isn’t what he wanted at all. “I just do not understand. Why you?”
“Because the goddesses did not strike me down as I sat by you at the river,” Sidney says, suddenly sharp. “Because I dressed you instead of Matt, and you returned from Olympus as our Oracle.” Sidney lets out a long sigh, aggrieved. “So I have been permitted to-- continue my duties--” the words are minced, as if he mimics someone, “Until you decide otherwise or--” He stops.
“Or what?” Zhenya presses.
“Or choose an Oracle-Consort,” Sidney says. It’s flat, angry, and Zhenya feels even more lost than before. “Have you chosen one, Oracle?”
“No,” Zhenya says, and he casts the thought of the wavy-haired man from his head. He is less important than Sidney’s strange anger.
“Fine. Then I shall continue as I have, until you make a decision and give me a different role,” Sidney says. From anger, he goes to flatness and resigned peace. Zhenya burns with more questions, but it’s clear he will get no answers from Sidney tonight, especially as Sidney distracts him with, “Perhaps-- try to open your eyes, Zhenya?” There’s a tiny quiver on the last syllable, the barest hint of worry and fear, and Zhenya swallows heavily.
Still, he slowly opens his eyes. Blessings upon blessings, he sees the foggy shape of Sidney and the hulking stone walls of the temple, and a wave of emotion sweeps over him. He buries his face in his hands, weeping, and there is a clatter as Sidney rushes to his side. He wraps his arms about Zhenya as he edges himself onto the lounge next to Zhenya, and Zhenya can feel the tenseness of Sidney’s muscles against his side.
“I can see,” Zhenya chokes out between sobs, and Sidney relaxes in one fluid motion, heaving out a great sigh as he molds himself closer to Zhenya’s body. “It is-- not good yet, but I think that I will fully heal.”
“By the Lady’s bow, you are blessed, Oracle,” Sidney says, the crackle of tears on the edge of his voice as well, and he holds Zhenya for a long moment. Zhenya’s stomach rumbles again, and it softens the air between them. Sidney, laughing a little, says, “The flesh waits for no man; come, it is time to eat.” Sidney stands, and where he was pressed against Zhenya’s side goes as chill as the snow that drives across Mount Olympus.
Zhenya opens his eyes again, searching for Sidney; the sight of him is more important than food, even with a hunger as great as the goddess’ rising with him. Zhenya finds him quickly, for he has not moved too far and is perched in a chair next to Zhenya’s chest. He has his head bound in a towel like a servant, and his tunic is spotted with droplets of oil and water. His face is still a blur to Zhenya, but at least he can see the curve of Sidney’s lips shaped into a bright smile and the trembling glitter of tears in Sidney’s eyes. Then his eyes fall to the extravagant dish next to Sidney-- well, probably extravagant? It looks too bright with fresh fruit and vegetable for how early in spring they are-- and his stomach complains again. Zhenya reaches for the plate, weakly propping himself up on one arm that shakes with exhaustion. Sidney slaps his hand away. “Hey!” Zhenya says, indignant. “Were you not just saying that it is time to eat?”
“You cannot see clearly, and even sitting up a little straighter leaves you limp with exhaustion,” Sidney scolds. “How are you to feed yourself without making a mess of the dish and the couch and yourself? No. I will feed you, and you will rest on your laurels.”
Zhenya tries to puff up and defend himself, but he does not even have the energy for that, so he concedes. Sidney picks something bright red up, offering it forward until it touches Zhenya’s lips. He opens obediently and Sidney pops the morsel in, commanding, “Bite,” and Zhenya discovers it’s an early strawberry. He feels his face pucker from the tartness until the sweet creeps in behind, and while he is distracted, Sidney has gathered up another mouthful. The time it is roasted and oiled chickpeas which Sidney is careful to tip into Zhenya’s mouth tidily, brushing four of his fingertips along Zhenya’s lower lip to catch any drips of oil and nudge in an errant chickpea. Then Sidney lifts the wine cup, pressing it to Zhenya’s lips and angling it until he can sip at it noisily. Down goes the wine cup onto the table, and towards Zhenya comes more food: finest white bread coated in honey, delicate flakes of smoked fish, hard cheese, apples, boiled eggs. His stomach seems bottomless, but the plate is large enough to match, and Sidney is more than patient as he feeds Zhenya mouthful by mouthful. The attentive way he leans over Zhenya and deliberates over the plate before selecting the next bite, the focus of his expression visible even in the fogginess of Zhenya’s eyes, wraps a hand about his heart and squeezes. Zhenya is ravenously hungry but he eats slowly, not to savor the food but rather the way that Sidney’s eyes fix on his face. Just as every minute on the mountain was an endless age, so Zhenya tries to make this moment equally infinite.
Occasionally, Sidney’s precision fails, and his fingers linger a little long across Zhenya’s lips or his thumb rubs across Zhenya’s chin. Zhenya yearns after each touch, paying less mind to eating in the hopes of another brush of Sidney’s hand. He wraps his hands around Sidney’s on the wine cup under the pretext of preventing himself from drowning in wine, but truly it’s to feel the warm steadiness of Sidney under his hand.
Yet all of his clever ploys are not enough, and the plate and cup are empty far before his skin stops aching with the need of Sidney’s hands upon him. “Sid--” Zhenya says. How can he ask for this, not as the Oracle but as Zhenya?
“What do you need?” Sidney asks instantly, at the edge of his seat and leaning forward. Zhenya sits up laboriously and reaches out, and Sidney reaches in return without hesitation. He tries to turn his palms to Zhenya’s, to hold his hand, but Zhenya evades him and grasps the backs of Sidney’s hands, pulling them to his face and cradling each along his cheeks. Sidney seems to understand, and he slides over to share the lounge with Zhenya again, pressing his hands against Zhenya’s skin as if he reassures himself that Zhenya truly has returned. They stay like that for a long moment, Zhenya staring fuzzily into Sidney’s eyes and relishing the kind touch. But his eyes begin to droop, and Sidney says softly, “It is time for you to go to your rest, Zhenya.”
“If I must,” Zhenya grumbles. Sidney shifts him up, and somehow they stagger together towards the bedroom. The last thing Zhenya remembers is Sidney lowering him down onto a couch, covering him with a blanket, and hesitating before bending forward and kissing his brow.
Zhenya does sleep for the promised two days, only waking long enough to stuff himself and bathe twice a day. It is a bit indulgent, but he deserves a little indulgence, and the servants are more than happy to encourage him into it should he waver. The evening of the second day, though, he forces a greater wakefulness into his eyes and settles down with a scroll detailing the confirmation ceremony.
Zhenya has known since a young age that he was a strong enough Sybil to be considered for the ordeal, so he has more than the usual passing familiarity with the ceremonies and rituals of an Oracle. But now a sense of duty and nerves creeps in, and Zhenya settles in to study. -- and so the Oracle will lead the Sybils in a great Seeing, and the Oracle will sit upon a stool as his Oracle-Consort stands behind him, and he will stir the water and look into it, and together the Oracle and his Sybils will see the great turning-points of the world--
It is meant to be a time of study and contemplation and preparing for the ritual, but it becomes a time of musing and frustration with the mention of the Oracle-Consort. By all tradition, he would have the wavy-haired man stand behind him, silent support amongst prophecy and physical comfort in private. But when Zhenya thinks of this moment, of the focus of the Sybils and the great prophecy they create together, there is no one he’d rather have at his back than Sidney. Sid, who helped Zhenya limp to the temple when he sprained his ankle while they were seven and playing soldiers. Sid, who stared defiantly out from eyes bruised thanks to a fight over Zhenya’s honor, a fight that Zhenya still does not know the truth of thanks to Sid’s stubbornness. Sid, who grew up with Zhenya, and not just grew up but grew together. Sid, who bucked all tradition to sit by Zhenya through the vigil, who did not shout and instead saved his breath for running to meet Zhenya upon his return from Mount Olympus.
Zhenya falls asleep with Sidney still in his thoughts, and the goddess is cruel enough to give him prophecies of the wavy-haired man instead. His face remains shrouded, but he sits beside Zhenya in the banqueting hall, maintains a firm but invisible presence behind the three-legged stool of the Oracle, runs with Zhenya in the snow with a laugh and a shout that is too indistinct to identify, counsels Zhenya in his private rooms in a murmur that Zhenya trusts with every fiber of his heart.
The prophecy shifts to something with the harsh edge of realness; here is Zhenya in his bed, and he knows it is now, the day before he is confirmed as the Oracle. He lifts his wrist; there is his laurel wreath, still glistening as it has since he first painted it on. A man looms above the bed; Zhenya can only see the ripple of his hair and the way the moonlight limns it until he is edged with silver. Zhenya stares, searching the black void of his face for any detail, any hint of the visage beneath. He is unsuccessful, as he always is. Zhenya raises his arm-- or rather, the prophecy raises his arm for him-- and the wavy-haired man slides onto the couch next to Zhenya. They curl together, Zhenya wrapping himself firmly behind the wavy-haired man, and Zhenya slides back into sleep.
Here is Zhenya in his bed, and he knows it is now, the day before he is confirmed as the Oracle. The wavy-haired man still looms above him, the laurel wreath is still writ bright along Zhenya’s wrist. This is one of those prophecies, then, when he sinks into the same moment again and again until the goddess is sure that he knows every detail. There’s no new detail to glean, though, as the wavy-haired man slides onto the couch next to Zhenya, and he growls in frustration. There’s a soundless question from the wavy-haired man, and Zhenya says, “Go to sleep.” Interfering with the prophecy will only add to the loops, but it’s too late now.
Here is Zhenya in his bed, and he knows it is now, the day before he is confirmed as the Oracle. The wavy-haired man slides onto the couch next to Zhenya, and here is Zhenya in his bed, and he knows it is now, the day before he is confirmed as the Oracle. The wavy-haired man slides onto the couch next to Zhenya.
Here is Zhenya in his bed, and he knows it is now, the day before he is confirmed as the Oracle. He lifts his wrist; there is his laurel wreath, still glistening as it has since he first painted it on. Sidney looms above the bed; Zhenya can see the bright shine of his eyes and the familiar curve of his nose underneath the ripple of wavy hair. The the moonlight limns every detail until Sidney is more godly than human, edged with silver and prophecy. Zhenya stares. Sidney’s brows furrow, thrown into sharp relief by the harsh reflections of moonlight on snow, and he makes a jerky move to turn. Zhenya raises his arm, and Sidney hesitates. Sidney opens his mouth soundlessly, and Zhenya prays he does not speak and break the prophecy. He shuts it and slides onto the couch, allowing Zhenya to flick the covers over him as he wiggles backwards until he is snug against Zhenya’s front, warm and soft and pliant as Zhenya wraps his arms about Sidney and holds him close.
Zhenya wakes with the sun high in the sky and his couch empty save for him. It was no prophecy, then, but a dream. He tries not to be too disappointed and fails.
A polite cough sounds from the other side of the curtain as a sandal scuffs upon the floor. “Enter,” Zhenya calls, voice thick with sleep, and an acolyte sweeps in, arms full of cloth.
“Oracle, we must prepare,” the acolyte announces, frowning sternly at Zhenya still tangled in his sheets as if the goddesses themselves will strike him down for his sloth of sleeping past sunrise. Another acolyte fights past the curtain, burdened with the symbolic bow and quiver of the Oracle. Zhenya sighs and sits up; the acolytes take it as a signal and circle closer, vultures waiting for the final struggle of their prey before descending.
Zhenya snatches at the turquoise cloth lumped in one acolyte’s arms as he shifts pass, and succeeds in liberating a tunic. “Oracle--!” the acolyte says, alarmed. “We are to assist you in dressing!”
“Assist me by bringing me something with which to break my fast,” Zhenya growls. He yanks the tunic from the acolyte as well and stares pointedly until the acolyte strides away, grumbling. Zhenya shifts his gaze to the other acolyte, who steps forward to delicately place the bow and quiver at the end of Zhenya’s couch and backs away. Zhenya dresses in relative peace, testing his sight to see how far away he can look before his vision blurs-- longer than the length of this room, blessed goddesses-- and trying not to think about Sidney carefully dressing him as he stood blind and naked in the tepidarium.
Fully clothed, Zhenya strides over to the greatest indulgence of the Oracle’s rooms: a plate of silver, half as tall as Zhenya and twice as wide, polished to a gleaming finish until it is as fine a mirror as leaded glass. He turns as he looks at his reflection, frowning at the turquoise tunic edged in silver; it’s gaudy, and not a color he prefers, but he supposes it doesn’t look absolutely dreadful. He leans in until his breath fogs the silver, staring past the red line slashing his face in twain and into his own eyes, and just barely he can see the purple sheen that still colors them. Mount Olympus has left its mark upon him permanently, and he sends a prayer to Delphinia for the mercy he has been shown.
Zhenya returns to the bed to examine the quiver and bow. They are both made of silver, with each arrow tipped in lethally shaped silver, a lesser companion to the goddess’ golden bow and arrows, but one befitting a mortal. There is a hook upon the quiver, so he loops it into his belt and hangs the bow about the quiver.
Fully dressed, Zhenya takes a deep breath. He had wondered for many years if he would feel in this moment like an imposter, a child dressing up in adult’s clothes, a mere sybil parading about as the Oracle. He’s surprised to find that he feels nothing other than settled and-- confident. He lifts his wrist to look at the laurels twisting around it; already he cannot imagine himself without these marks. The only quivering, uncertain part of him is the part that says, Sid? He pushes it away, for there is no time today for the stuff of dreams.
The acolytes return, one carrying a tray of bread and cheese and the other with a wreath of laurel. Zhenya takes the wreath, looking at it for a long moment before draping it about his neck. “Oracle--” the pushy acolyte of before says, but quells his protestations at Zhenya’s disregard of tradition under the firm gaze Zhenya sends his way.
“As Delphinia twisted the laurels of blood around my neck, so I will honor her wishes with this wreath,” Zhenya says frostily. He takes the plate from the other acolyte, and says, “I begin my contemplations now.” It’s unsubtle, and the acolytes scurry forth.
Zhenya savors his meal; eating is still a new pleasure after so long without appetite. The cheese has gone sharp, just the way that Zhenya prefers, and the bread is soft and a little sweet in comparison. He pours a cup of water from the ewer in the corner, and it’s crisp and clean in his throat. Prophecy is friendliest to a mind that is open and without judgement or prediction of its own, so he reluctantly sets aside the wavy-haired man and Sidney. He is a receptacle of the goddess’ knowledge today, and nothing more.
The sun has ascended nearly as far as it will this early in spring, glistening sharply through the window in Zhenya’s bedroom, when the acolytes return. Any sybil can scry in the dark, and indeed sometimes even those unblessed can see the future during the night, but only an Oracle can scry at high noon when the sky and earth is owned entirely by Daphnaeus while Delphinia sleeps upon Mount Olympus.
“So we begin,” Zhenya declares before either of the acolytes can show their attitude again. He strides forth from his chambers, whipping aside the curtain so it does not tangle in the bow at his side, and the acolytes scramble after him. A tiny, merciless part laughs at them: if Sidney were here, like I desired, he could keep up with me and not fall behind so quickly like you.
It is not a long path from the Oracle’s chambers to the great Hall of Sybils; after all, the temple was built for the Oracle above all, shaped around the flow of the goddess’ river and the needs of her mortal agent. The Hall is the most impressive of the nine scrying rooms arrayed about the Oracle’s chambers, sharing only a tributary of the goddess’ river in common with the rest. The river runs into a pool deep enough to bathe in and wider in its circle than Zhenya is tall, sitting in the center of a similarly circular room. A great skylight opens above, a beam of light shooting down into the scrying-pool and illuminating the floor. It is lined with shimmering red designs, spokes dividing the room into nine sections, one for each of the great Muses of knowledge. At the far end from the doorway lies the section of Kleios, the proclaimer, owner of both past and future, and within it stands a tripod. There is nothing particularly striking about it; it’s made of humble wood and unadorned, with a simple red cushion upon it, yet still somehow it looms over the room.
The second Zhenya steps into the room, the confirmation begins. He holds his head high and paces in; he has nothing to fear, for after the sight of Delphinia herself, this ritual holds no terror. He is not alone in the room, of course. About the perimeter stand the other fourteen sybils. Eighteen, including the Oracle, is the preferred number-- two for each muse-- but the wars and famine of the outside world were not kind to the priesthood either, and they still rebuild their numbers. Too, Zhenya does not have a consort without the wavy-haired man, and so he stands alone with Kleios. So: fourteen shadows along the perimeter of the room, hooded and veiled, two standing in each Muse’s division except Eratos and Thalios-- one each-- and Kleios-- only the tripod, waiting for Zhenya.
He walks slowly from the doorway and to the pool. He walks a complete circle about it, chanting the first invocation of Delphinia, and the ritual begins. Zhenya acknowledges each of the Muses, asking for their unique blessings upon the temple, a request he has seen and made so many times that he does not even think as the words fall from his lips. The sybils respond to each blessing, adding their own voices to the incantation, and finally Zhenya works his way about the pool to stand in Kleios’ section, next to the tripod. The sybils begin a new chant as Zhenya stares down at the shimmering turquoise water, nearly the same color as Zhenya’s tunic and toga but lit from within by the sunbeam that still blesses its surface.
Servant of Greatest Delphinia
Sit in the Olympic Spring
Wash in its silvery eddies,
And bring cleansing to the temple.
Guard your lips from offence
To those who ask for oracles.
Let the Goddess’s answer come
Pure from all private fault.
The sybils fall silent. Zhenya steps forward. The water is frigid, colder than ice, and his gasp echoes about the room as he takes his first step in. There are stairs etched into the pool, nine going down across the width of the pool, each engraved with a lesson from its Muse. The first step is of Melponema, he of tragedy, and it reads NOTHING IN EXCESS. Each step downwards steals the breath from Zhenya’s lungs, and he struggles against the cold, fighting to remember that he no longer walks in defiance of the mountain but is safe in the temple.
Zhenya steps to the floor of the pool, bowing his head and splashing water upon his face, and the fourteen sybils step forward as one until they neatly line the edge of the pool, a wall broken by three gaps. Zhenya cups his hand, gathering the water that pours into the pool from the channel cut into the floor and tipping some into his mouth to drink. He is soaked from head to toe; his toga floats around him, twirling to and fro with the eddies in the pool, and the waterline laps teasingly at his chin. Now is the true test, the first showing of the Goddess’ blessings upon Zhenya. He turns to face the stairs again, stepping onto Kleios’. His shoulders break the water. His toga is dry. Not a word is spoken, but still there is a feeling of noise, a sigh of relief, lighting the air in the room. Another step up, and Zhenya’s chest clears the water. Above it, his garments are bone-dry, as if they’ve sat under the hot southern sun for hours. Below, they float, still pulled by the playful fingers of the water. Step after step after step, Zhenya exits the pool. He leaves nary a single footprint of water behind him as he steps fully onto the floor and turns to face the pool, as dry as when he stepped into it. Another soundless sigh echos about the room; the River of Olympus has shown its full obedience to Zhenya.
That is not all that the ritual demands of him. Now he kneels beside the pool, lifting the laurel wreath from about his neck and throwing it in. It floats, turning slowly, and Zhenya puts his hand through it and into the water. The blood-laurel about his wrist leaves behind a trail of reddened water, delicate whorls of color like smoke following the path of his hand as he stirs it through the pool. Zhenya withdraws his hand, and the laurel wreath spins and spins until it sits in the center of the pool, perfectly still, and the blood has spread and spread until the bottom cannot be seen for the red of the water. Only then does Zhenya stand and turn, using his arms to heave himself onto the high tripod.
Zhenya gazes into the scrying pool as the sybils pull down their hoods and unveil their faces, forgotten motion in the corner of his eye. He blinks, and from nothing explodes color and motion, sound and scent, a vision born whole from the water. His head feels light, the elation and drunkness of the Sybil’s Shelf brought back to him, and he feels crazed, weighed down and freed by the burden of prophecy.
Usually, prophecy is like a rainbow shimmering in the mist of a waterfall: flickers of color, like a scene seen through a mirror or water, floating and distant and flat. Here, where the sybils bend their wills together, led by an Oracle, prophecy walks among them.
An Empress stands upon the surface of the pool, demanding and furious. She shimmers with jewels and silk, a haughty frown upon her face, a future moment settled uncomfortably in the now.
Beneath her lies rot and ruin, flies spinning lazily over fields sown with salt. A mob full of shadowy figures lurks, and within it shines the cold reality of a blade pointed at her back. She is oblivious, screaming unintelligible invective. “This is my empire! No priestess or sybil will tell me what I must do, no courtier will twist my words against me, no goddess will enforce her will over mine. I am Danaë, Empress of this earth; you will accept my rule or suffer my wrath!”
She must die soon, or else the temple burns.
A single ray of light breaks through the skylight, falling upon a sybil. Danaë raises her hand, pointing an accusing finger, and shrieks, “You!”
Zhenya’s eyes follow her hand automatically, and there is the wavy-haired man under her finger. The walls whisper save us as the light dances in the colors of prophecy about him.
Zhenya blinks. Sidney remains, hair curled and glistening as it has been in so many prophecies. Zhenya blinks.
Sidney stands behind and beside the Oracle’s tripod, dressed in white-and-silver, a slim tunic-- clearly showing his pleasing, boyish figure-- and not much else. His hand rests upon Zhenya’s back, eyes open and alert as Zhenya’s are half-closed in the ecstasy of prophecy. He wears a single strand of laurel looped about his wrist, and underneath it glimmers the red of a blood-laurel, the twin of the mark upon Zhenya’s wrist. He offers forth a dish for Zhenya to dip his fingers into and flick them out, drawing arcs of the future through the air along water droplets.
Zhenya blinks. The grip of Delphinia loosens, and he collapses forward, relief coating his skin and throbbing through his veins. It was not dream last night, but prophecy; Sidney is the wavy-haired man. All is well.
The confirmation is over, and the sybils break into chaos, shouting at each other in disbelief or interpretation of the prophecy as others loudly congratulate Sidney. Yet Sidney is silent. It’s no surprise, then, when a soft hand lands upon Zhenya’s shoulder. “Are you well?” Sidney asks, directly into his ear, and Zhenya nods. “Then stand, Oracle. It is time for your feast.” He sounds-- oddly formal, and when Zhenya looks up, there is a blankness in his eyes. He still helps Zhenya stand, perfectly courteous, but he melts away as the other sybils descend upon Zhenya. Zhenya gives a great whoop as they lift him into the air, carrying him forth from the Hall of the Sybils to the banqueting hall.
The noise of all of the gathered acolytes and honored guests and temple workers is deafening from twenty lengths down the hallway, but a perfect silence falls as Zhenya is carried into the room. The sybils carefully place Zhenya back upon his feet, and Seryozha calls, “The Oracle of Delphinia and his Oracle-Consort!” Only then does Zhenya realize that Sidney has been shoved forward to stand next to him. He tries to give some small signal, brushing his hand against the back of Sidney’s, nudging his shoulder, but Sidney stares stubbornly forward as the crowd explodes into cheering. Despite the palpable joy in the room, Zhenya’s heart sinks to his feet and his throat thickens with sorrow. He does not understand Sidney’s sudden coldness; is he offended that Zhenya showed their closeness to all the sybils? Is he not yet prepared to become Zhenya’s consort? Zhenya thinks of their discussion last night-- then I shall continue as I have, until you choose otherwise and give me a different role -- and of years and years of prophecy, all the ways they have grown together in the future while they grew together in the present, but it is not enough in the face of such indifference.
There is no time to pull Sidney aside to talk, either; they are ushered to the plushest couches immediately, encircled by well-wishers and sycophants and general chaos. Each sybil will be given an audience with the Oracle, but there is only one that Zhenya has any interest in speaking with.
With the first course arrives Beau, looking a little nervous and sheepish as he always does. Whistles echo through the room, with a few rogue calls of, “Good boy! Go to your master!” that leaves Zhenya’s jaw hanging.
“What?” Zhenya says weakly, and the few within earshot turn like wolves on the scent.
“Did you not know, Oracle?” Colby says gleefully, leaning forward on his couch. “Oh, goddesses! You will not believe what our youngest sybil has prophesied!”
“Must you?” Beau says, surly, as he throws himself down onto the couch opposite Zhenya. “Can you give me but one bit of reprieve, instead of instantly tattling on me the second the Oracle has returned?”
“He has been returned for three days,” Colby replies primly. “It is time that he knows how your apprenticeship has gone.”
“Are the villagers displeased with his prophecies?” Zhenya asks. Beau is a little scatter-minded but nonetheless a true sybil, and the villagers are used to the clumsy attempts of new sybils by now. They generally only scry the weather and the small happenings of the village, so there’s little room for offense, a lesson learned early on in the arrangement.
“On the contrary,” Colby says, relishing the words as Beau groans and buries himself in a nearby platter, “They quite enjoy the spectacle of his weekly visits. We have had to send two acolytes down to accompany him, because without them he will inevitably sprain his ankle on the walk up or down-- plus no single man can remember the hilarity of his prophecies.”
“Give the man some mercy, Colby,” Sidney interjects.
“ Thank you,” Beau says, half-spraying bread crumbs on the floor in his enthusiasm.
“After all, it’s not often that a sybil comes upon such a shame, that he cannot tell the difference between a man’s face, his wife, and their dog,” Sidney continues mercilessly.
“ What?” Zhenya says, for lack of any higher thought.
“Just last week, he went down to the village to fulfill the arrangement,” Colby says, settling in for a good story. “The acolytes tell us a humble farmer approached him and asked for a scrying on his family. So young Beau settles in at the pond off of the Olympus River and bends down and he says--” Colby pauses to laugh, a great bellow, before managing to say, I see... um... kind of a... round white blobby thing... oh, it's your face!” A laugh chases through the listening crowd as Colby pauses to enjoy the reaction.
Beau, flaming red but with a jutted chin, says, “Ask the acolytes, his face was quite blobby, especially with such a sour expression. The goddesses were not kind.”
“But! This is not the end!” Colby announces, ignoring Beau’s interjection. “As if this is not enough, he changes his mind! He says now, Oh no, wait, I think it’s your wife’s face!” A greater bellow of laughter echoes through the room, and he triumphantly finishes, “And before the man can storm off in fury, Beau says, ...Do you have a small white dog, by chance?”
A final round of guffaws and whistles and shouts of “Good dog!” run through the hall, echoing even from the far reaches. It is apparently still quite a favored story, despite obviously many retellings, and Zhenya feels a little bad for the hapless Beau even as he laughs. A beam of sunlight falls upon his close-shorn hair, and Zhenya feels a jolt in his chest as he glances to his left at Sidney’s hair, nearly thumb-length now. Without Beau arriving and taking Sidney’s place as the youngest sybil, Sidney’s hair would have remained close-cropped and Zhenya would have never known….
The opening of the feast is good prediction for the rest; the sybils and acolytes and guests are joyous and free in their celebrations. Zhenya is regaled with many a merry tale from his absence and given few complaints, so the temple has kept itself in good order. He finds himself unable to focus on the merry stories and banter of the sybils; instead, his mind is occupied by glancing to his side. Sidney is suddenly cheerful: smiling, laughing, encouraging the sybils even as he keeps a sharp eye on the currents of the party, the perfect picture of an Oracle-consort. Zhenya feels his heart swell, his throat tightening on the sharp edge of love so strong it can kill. A year ago, he desperately searched for the answer held in the identity of the wavy-haired man, but now he has seen that the answer was in his heart all along, and Sidney has gotten past his shock and has found the joy that mirrors Zhenya’s own.
The hours drag by as the sybils flow past Zhenya, each taking their audience, followed by the most senior priests and acolytes. Only once the sun has set does Zhenya’s impatience and exhaustion finally win out over duty. He stands along with the latest petitioner-- a priest of sixty some years that was known for being kind but entirely too wordy, a reputation he more than lived up to this night-- and Sidney scrambles to stand with Zhenya as the hall erupts into raunchy, shouted suggestions of Zhenya’s next activity.
“Blessings of Delphinia on you all,” Zhenya says, voice echoing into the sudden silence, and all chorus back, “Blessings on you, Oracle!” Perhaps he should say more, but there is not a word left in his head that has not yet been spoken today, and so he simply turns and departs. He cannot hear Sidney’s footfall behind him over the chatter of the continuing feast until they are two hallways away, but he doesn’t need to hear it to know that Sidney is behind him, as always. Some of the exhaustion falls from Zhenya’s limbs, driven away by a trembling lightning-bolt of desire and prophecy. Perhaps he does not already know the exact details of how this night will go, but he remembers a thousand and one nights of debauchery together, and confidence swings through his limbs.
The Oracle’s chambers are peaceful when they arrive, the silence buzzing in Zhenya’s ears after hours of shouting and laughter ringing in them. Sidney unties the door-curtain, allowing it to fall with a heavy slap on the doorframe. Zhenya’s heart thumps along with the sound, throbbing in painful excitement in his chest. He unbuckles his belt and sheds the bow and quiver carelessly to the side of the room before turning to face Sidney, anticipation trembling through his fingers. It all stops, though, when he sees Sidney staring blankly at the couch, something soft and broken-open about his face. “Sidney?” Zhenya says urgently, hurrying forward with a hand outstretched. Sidney pulls away from the gesture, twisting his head to the side, and Zhenya comes to a stop, hand falling to his side as something deep inside him wrenches out of place. “Sidney? What’s wrong?”
“I am-- tired,” Sidney says roughly. Zhenya’s eyes narrow as he examines Sidney’s face; he does look haggard, and now that Zhenya thinks back, Sidney was perfectly polite but curiously blank throughout dinner, talking and laughing and eating with perfect grace yet still somehow… lifeless. A tired Sidney is cantankerous and cranky, bullheaded and too willing to challenge; no, Zhenya does not believe that he is tired.
“Is this what we are now? I am Oracle, and you are my Consort, and I am no longer worthy of your time or honesty?”
Sidney jerks as if slapped, a frown erupting upon his face. “You have my devotion; is that not all the Consort must offer?” Sidney says, and there’s an edge of bitter on it that breaks Zhenya’s teeth like a cherry pit.
“Have I said that I have any interest in your devotion above our friendship?” Zhenya says, the words surprised out of him with a harsh hiss.
Sidney stops and looks at Zhenya, truly looks at him, for-- for the first time since he was feeding Zhenya, Zhenya realizes. There’s something echoing deep within Sidney’s eyes that trembles on the edge of tears, and this time when Zhenya reaches forward to cradle his cheek, Sidney permits the touch, though he does not lean into it.
“You have not said anything at all,” Sidney spits. “You tell me of my selection in front of all of the sybils, so I cannot protest it or talk through it. And I know what the Consort is for,” Sidney says. Now his voice wavers like it did when he scraped a knee when they played together as children or when Zhenya left welts upon his own skin, clawing himself to escape from prophecy. “I am-- a strong sybil. One strong enough to bring the great prophecies forth with you, a duty I fulfill with no reservations. But-- is that the only duty you expect of me?”
“I wish to be together in all ways,” Zhenya says. He tries not to leap to anger or sadness or any other lightning bolt in the storm raging within him. “Do you disagree? Shall we be as brothers and not lovers, coming together to honor Delphinia and each other with our fucking?”
“ Do we honor each other with ‘our fucking?’” Sidney asks stiffly. His gaze slides away from Zhenya’s again, cheeks and ears flushing bright red as Zhenya gapes at him. “What, you so casually mention fucking, and yet it is too inappropriate for me to question?” Sidney adds, and now he’s nearly frigid.
“I-- of course-- but-- you haven’t--” Zhenya fumbles, and finally he manages, “I’ve seen you in a thousand visions and a thousand more. Have you never seen me in prophecy?” Has Sidney truly not seen the same as Zhenya, the tender nights and playful days, the life they lead together not in duty but in love? He is afraid, suddenly, to mention the specifics, the way Sidney moans as Zhenya nips his ear and the various creative ways he extracts revenge for Zhenya groping him in public. Perhaps it was not prophecy, but the wishes of a heart filled with unknowing longing, and to reveal it would disgust Sidney.
Sidney looks askance at the topic change, but answers. “No,” he says, and Zhenya shakes to a stop, his heart stilling and dropping through his stomach. Sidney continues, hushed, over Zhenya’s shock. “But I saw an Oracle with purple eyes descending from Olympus, shining with moonlight and wreathed in laurel-- about his neck and wrists and ankles-- and I knew by the love filling my heart that it was you.”
“Do you think that I could feel any differently than you?” Zhenya cries, surging forward to cradle his other hand about Sidney’s face, drawing them close until they breathe the same air. “Do you believe that I went up the mountain of the goddesses and returned without a thought in my mind of you? Delphinia herself offered to make me a goddess-consort and I refused! How could I leave this mortal realm with you still in it? How could I serve her when my mind was filled with thoughts of you?”
Sidney’s lips thin, and his eyes fill with uncertainty. “Truly?” he whispers, leaning into Zhenya’s palms in a silent plea for reassurance.
“Truly,” Zhenya vows. “Every step down from the mountain and every beat of my heart was in your name. Not even the goddess herself may have me if you desire me as I so desire you.”
Sidney considers this for a long moment before his expression twists again. “If you have seen us together so many times, why have you not mentioned it?” Sidney says, yearning and suspicion warring in his voice. “How convenient that you have seen all of this and not I, and that you have not told me of it before now.”
“I-- for a long time, I did not know it was you,” Zhenya confesses. “The visions were limited; your face was hidden from me in all of them. The only consistent feature was dark and wavy hair, and so for all my life I have known you as the wavy-haired man.”
Sidney’s expression grows colder, until it is as frigid as the Sybil’s Shelf. “So we come together because you saw my hair and knew that we were to be together,” he says flatly. “It is a matter of prophecy, then, just as my station as Oracle-consort is a matter of prophecy.”
“No!” Zhenya shouts, Sidney’s startled eyes flying wide open, and Zhenya sucks in a deep breath. “No,” he says evenly, when the spike of rage like goddess’ lightning has flickered away. “When I returned to the temple, and you cared for me and bathed me and fed me and touched me though you did not have to, I cursed the goddesses that you would be replaced by my Consort, by a man I had never met. How could I hold any in my heart above you? And then last night, Delphinia brought me a moment of prophecy, again and again and again, until finally she revealed to me your face as you slid into bed with me. At first I thought it was a dream, my desperation and desire cloaked in the guise of prophecy, but now I know that it was truly the whispers of the goddess.” Zhenya pauses as Sidney flushes more, cheeks growing hot under Zhenya’s palm.
“That was no prophecy,” he says, even squirming slightly under Zhenya’s hand.
“It must be,” Zhenya protests. “Your face was clear in my sight; it felt like prophecy in my soul.”
“Is it prophecy if… it actually happened?” Sidney says, eyes darting off to the side to avoid Zhenya’s gaze, and it takes Zhenya a long moment to understand his meaning.
“You-- that was you joining me in my bed?” Zhenya says, again half-shouting but this time in disbelief.
“I missed you so keenly,” Sidney says, his voice dropping into the gravelly register that he uses when he is unsure or relaxed. “I woke in the dark and was struck with a terrible fear that you had disappeared while I arranged your confirmation. I thought-- what an idiot I am, running and hiding from you under the excuse of duty when all I had wished was to have you safely back from Olympus. When I realized that you had woken up while I was trying to assure myself of your presence, I hoped you would think it was a dream. Then-- you invited me in when I turned to leave--” Sidney stops to swallow thickly, and Zhenya cannot bear the distance between them any longer, grasping Sidney about the shoulders and pulling him close until they are pressed together from neck to knee. Sidney’s arms wrap around Zhenya’s back, pressing tight, as Sidney trembles in Zhenya’s embrace.
“I am here,” Zhenya says fiercely, craning his neck so he can bite each syllable off directly into Sidney’s ear. “I am here, and I am yours, now and forever. I am done with dreams and prophecy of you and I together; I want it in truth, and as long as I am still breathing, I will not permit my love for you to wane or wither.”
Sidney struggles for a brief moment against Zhenya’s arms, and Zhenya releases him, a flood of worry crashing over his head. It is short-lived; Sidney is barely free of Zhenya before he throws his arms about Zhenya’s neck and brings them together in a desperate kiss. In it, Zhenya tastes a month and a half of uncertainty, of fear, of unknowing and regret, and three days of relief and terror. Zhenya does what he can to soothe Sidney, but he is quickly washed away from the thought on the strength of Sidney’s body against his and the passion of the kiss. Zhenya instead is drawn into exploring; how does Sidney react when Zhenya pulls back to bite softly at his lip, where he so often worries at the skin? Will he make the same squeaking noise as Zhenya brushes his hand over the back of Sidney’s neck again? Time unfolds in moment after moment of delighted exploration, Sidney giving back as good as he gets, discovering how Zhenya melts under a hand tangled in his hair and twitches his hips as Sidney grasps as his ass.
They come together on a kiss and part on gasped breaths again and again, until Sidney pulls back with a mischievous light in his eye that Zhenya recognizes. “Will we stand here all night, waiting for a sign from the goddess of her approval? Or will we get to fucking?”
“Weren’t you listening? She has already given her approval in my prophecy today,” Zhenya says, unable to resist the urge to be impish.
Sidney rolls his eyes, slapping a hand against Zhenya’s shoulder impatiently. “You know what I mean,” he says, and before Zhenya can push further on his deliberate obliviousness, he stands upon his toes and presses a searing kiss to Zhenya’s mouth as his hand cups Zhenya’s cock. There is no resistance in the face of that, and Zhenya pulls them across the room to the couch.
As they collapse onto the couch together, still caught in an embrace, Zhenya feels the wet slap of exhaustion about his limbs. Suddenly, it is too much to even prop himself up upon one arm, and the thought of the more vigorous prophecies of fucking make him ill with nerves, that he would collapse in the middle of it.
“Dearest,” Zhenya says, and it’s so pleasing to his tongue that he must repeat it, “Dearest, I am-- so tired. My body still aches from the mountain’s cruel treatment.”
Sidney is immediately focused on Zhenya, twisting about so he can free an arm and lay a hand upon Zhenya’s cheek. “Are you well?” he asks immediately, all sensuality gone in the face of trembling concern.
Zhenya turns his face enough that he can press a kiss into the cup of Sidney’s palm. “I am fine,” he assured Sidney. “But though the goddess gave me so many visions of our fucking, energetic and creative, I have little energy to give to you tonight for athleticism.”
“I do not need athleticism,” Sidney says. “I am not some boy waiting to be impressed and awed. I only ask for you, Zhenya, and what you can give to me in this moment; that is awe enough.”
Zhenya’s heart clenches, and he blinks. The air around him fills with a thousand prophecies, all of them familiar and dear, once faceless and now complete. Sidney, teasing gently, smoothing Zhenya’s resultant frown away with a kiss. Sidney, throwing his head back in ecstasy as Zhenya fucks him with reckless abandon. Sidney, staring at Zhenya, not a word spoken between them but still overflowing with palpable love. Zhenya blinks, and the prophecies melt away. They all pale in comparison to the reality before him, and Zhenya surges forward, claiming a heady kiss from Sidney’s lips. Sidney moans and shifts upon the couch, and his need becomes evident, insistently pressed against Zhenya.
It is only then that Zhenya realizes they have miscalculated by not doing something about their clothing before lying down. It sounds too great a task to stand up, but still he plucks impatiently at Sidney’s toga. Sidney pulls back from the kiss and struggles to unwind his toga while still lying down, squirming against Zhenya as he fights the cloth. Perhaps it wasn’t so grievous an oversight. Sidney gives a triumphant, “Hah!” as he succeeds against the toga, casting it to the ground, but a frown slides between his eyebrows as he turns to see Zhenya still entirely clothed.
“I am too tired,” Zhenya says, falling dramatically back against the arm of the couch. “Sid, I cannot do it without you.”
“You cannot do anything without me,” Sidney says, but it’s gentle, a soft smile curving the words. He straddles Zhenya’s hips and leans down to unwind Zhenya’s toga, lifting and rolling him about until it is untangled enough that he can throw the cloth to the floor. The feeling of being handled so carefully yet firmly plus the weight of Sidney’s thighs upon Zhenya’s hips leaves Zhenya’s blood singing with passion. He tugs Sidney down until he is warm and heavy against Zhenya’s body, and they kiss until Zhenya’s lips are raw, until he gasps for air, until his head is light with passion. Zhenya finds his hands resting upon Sidney’s hips, and he slides them lower, until he can slip beneath the hem of Sidney’s tunic and back up.
“I thought you were too tired,” Sidney says. He doesn’t reject Zhenya’s advances, so Zhenya becomes more daring, allowing his fingers to dart over the shape of Sidney’s cock.
“I am never too tired to appreciate you,” Zhenya leers, and amazingly, Sidney flushes from his neck to his ears.
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Sidney says.
Zhenya gapes at him. “You believe my words are mere flattery?” he says. “What, do I have to list your merits for you to believe them? There is no person in the world with eyes such as yours, green and brown and filled with humor, even when you boss me about.”
“Zhenya--” Sidney says, a little weak, but Zhenya barrels over him.
“There is no person in the world with thighs like yours, so wide and strong about my waist,” Zhenya says. “The great sculptors wish for a model like you! Though perhaps they would despair, as you are more beautiful than they could achieve, even in the finest marble. I could go on like this forever, Sid, and you dismiss my passions as flattery?”
Sidney sighs, leaning down to press his cheek to Zhenya’s. “Thank you,” he says lowly. “I-- it still feels like a dream, a joke, that after years of letting my heart follow you, you would say such things. I must disbelieve in case this moment never returns, so that my heart is not broken so badly.”
“I can promise you the future,” Zhenya says, shifting his arms to embrace Sidney, “But it is cheap and dishonest of me to only promise that. I see a future between us because of what is in each of our hearts. To wake up next to you every day is a thought I treasure even more than having you as my true Consort, because you alone are everything that my heart yearns for. You would not be the only one with a broken heart if we are separated.”
Sidney’s reaction is to tug off his belt, fumbling at Zhenya’s after with fingers thick with excitement. Both belts discarded, he sits up as if to pull his tunic over his head, but Zhenya strikes first, unwinding Sidney’s loincloth and finally wrapping his fingers fully around Sidney’s cock. Sidney drops back onto Zhenya’s lap with a surprised noise as Zhenya runs his fingers up and down the fat shape of his dick, greedily learning the soft skin and Sidney’s reaction to each new touch.
“What is your desire, O Oracle?” Sidney says on a gasp.
“Here in my bedroom where it is but you and I, and you call me Oracle?” Zhenya says.
Sidney gives him a look, deep and loving yet edged in wariness, and he says, “You will not permit me any distance, will you? Fine. I open myself fully to you, Zhenya. What is your desire?”
Zhenya thinks about it. “I want to bend you in half and fuck you until you cry with pleasure,” he says. “I remember many prophecies full of our creativity. Perhaps also-- to lie like this, and watch you bounce upon my cock, greedily taking your pleasure with nary a thought for mine.” Sidney moans at that, and Zhenya pinches his ass before saying, “But I am tired, and the feeling your body against mine is more than enough. Come to me, Sid,” he finishes, and Sidney goes willingly as Zhenya pulls him down. Luckily, the couch is just large enough that Zhenya can guide Sidney off to the side, curling up behind Sidney as he did last night. It takes a few desperate minutes to hitch their tunics up and remove his own loincloth, and Zhenya rewards Sidney’s patience with soft strokes upon his cock, pressing kisses into the back of his neck.
Sidney shifts, trying to turn to face Zhenya, but Zhenya pushes forward firmly to stop him. “I want to see you,” Sidney pleads.
“I am here,” Zhenya soothes. “Isn’t this nice? Our bodies, together? How you can look down and see my hand upon your cock?”
Sidney thinks for a long moment before conceding, “Fine. But if I cannot see you, then I must hear you. Speak to me, Zhenya.”
“For you, always,” Zhenya assures. Sidney shifts, pushing back against Zhenya and his cock, and Zhenya groans at the sweet pressure. He is struck with a thought, so he says, “But-- just one moment--” and leans back to take his own dick in hand, maneuvering until he can slip it into the sweet space between Sidney’s thighs, the head bumping Sidney’s balls. Sidney’s answering moan is approval enough, and Zhenya slides their bodies tight together again as he takes Sidney back in hand. “What a sweet fuck,” Zhenya groans as he slides his cock along soft skin in the same rhythm of his hand on Sidney’s dick. “Your legs are so broad and strong that I know the sight of them lights a fire in many loins when summer comes and you forego a toga.” Zhenya tugs at Sidney’s ear with his teeth, licking and sucking until Sidney bucks, forcing himself back onto Zhenya’s cock and forward into Zhenya’s hand. “I have seen how they clamp about my ears when I kiss your pretty ass, so tightly I can barely hear you beg for my cock inside of you.”
“Tell me everything you have seen of us fucking,” Sidney gasps. He’s moving in earnest now, enough that Zhenya barely needs to twitch his own hips to build himself higher and higher towards pleasure.
“To tell you everything would take hours, or perhaps days,” Zhenya says throatily. “Our pleasures are so great and varied. Do you want to know of how sweetly you blush as I fuck you until you scream? Or of how you have driven me to muteness with the cleverness of your tongue upon my cock? Or of the time we fuck indiscreetly in the tepidarium of my baths, and a priest walks in on us, and there is a great murmur about the temple for days afterward speculating on the reason that he ran through the temple with his toga waving a flag of Priapus from the strength of his arousal?” Sidney throws his head back against Zhenya’s chest, and Zhenya pauses to place a kiss upon the crown of Sidney’s skull, his heart overfull with love as he stares at Sidney’s hectic red face.
“Tell me more,” Sidney gasps. “I am so close, Zhenya, do not stop now--!”
“Do you want to hear about my favorite prophecies?” Zhenya teases.
“Yes, yes! Please, anything!” Sidney begs.
“My favorite is not our tender fucks as the sun slowly rises, or the energetic fucks when we sneak away midday and hide with laughter from the priests, or the slow and sleepy fucks when we wake up horny in the middle of the night,” Zhenya says. “All are incredible, yes, but the greatest to me are the moments where you glance at me during a ceremony, eyes full of love as they are now, or slap my ass before the sybils to punish my raunchy comments, or sit quietly with me, bodies entwined as we work on our own tasks yet sit, content, together and in love.” That is enough to tip Sidney over the edge with a moan, and Zhenya follows soon after, driving his cock between Sidney’s thighs and coming as the head brushes Sidney’s balls, twitching with release. They melt into the touch together, a sloppy and satisfied pile of limbs, and Zhenya is gratefully drifting off to sleep when Sidney speaks.
“What will tomorrow bring?” he asks.
“Do you ask for my prophecy?” Zhenya mumbles. “You are Oracle-consort, your prophecy is as good as mine.”
“I ask for your heart and your mind, Zhenya,” Sidney says. “Do you give it?”
“You know I do,” Zhenya says.
“Tell me once more, then.”
“Tomorrow we do what we must to stop the empress Danaë,” Zhenya says, and he blinks. His sight is filled with the empress, face red and spittle spraying as she points at Sidney and howls, You! He blinks her away. “And every step that I take shall be at your side, if you will have me.”
“You know I will,” Sidney says, flipping around to cup his hand about Zhenya’s cheek and kiss him, sweet and closed-mouthed. “My heart has waited a long time for you, Zhenya, and I am not letting go of you so quickly now that I have you.” As he pulls his hand away, Zhenya grasps his forearm, holding his wrist between them so they can both see how blood appears from nowhere to splatter and flower across the skin. It coalesces over a long moment until it exactly matches the laurel on Zhenya’s wrist. Zhenya releases Sidney’s arm, pulling him close and tucking his face into the space between neck and shoulder.
“The goddess marks you as mine,” Zhenya says, the last desperate words before sleep. “But my heart marked you long before now.”
“As mine marked yours,” Sidney says, cradling the back of Zhenya’s head. “Sleep, Zhenya, my Oracle. There is much to be done; rest now, and we face tomorrow and the Empress together.”