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“There you are,” Brasidas said, as he walked along the beach. He looked at the boat that Deimos was struggling against with amusement. “You wouldn’t have gotten far with that. Do you even know how to sail?”

“I can learn,” Deimos said. Amusement only made him belligerent, even if Brasidas’ wasn’t coloured with malice. Not like the Priestess’ had been.

“All right.” Brasidas sat down on a rock. At Deimos’ startled look, he gestured at the boat. “Go on, then.”

Deimos glared at him. Though Brasidas wasn’t outright laughing at him, Deimos was fairly sure that nothing about his apparent patient silence now was kind. Even if it was, kindness tended to be a trap, a way that people contrived to trick him into lowering his guard—or doing what they wanted. It took a few attempts for Deimos to push the small boat out onto the water, and he’d scraped his hands raw in the process. Not that he’d complain. He’d learned young that complaining or crying always made things worse.

The boat floated reluctantly in the rocky bay. It took a few attempts for Deimos to climb on. Now he was at a loss. He inspected the sails and the ropes, then the front and back of the boat. How did the fishermen make it go? A pole? An oar? He didn’t see any of that with the boat. Deimos glanced at Brasidas with clenched teeth, certain that he was enjoying this. Brasidas merely stared back quietly, expressionless.

“Fine,” Deimos said. “I don’t know how to sail.”

“Do you want to learn how?” Brasidas asked. Deimos offered a wary nod. “Ask. Respectfully.”

“So you can say ‘no’ and laugh at me? Sure.”

“Mocking you would be a waste of your time and mine,” Brasidas said, still so strangely calm. “In Sparta, a child who wishes to learn something from another must ask. Should it be a reasonable thing for them to learn, they will be taught.”

“Teach me how to sail,” Deimos said. When Brasidas said nothing, Deimos scowled. “Please,” he grit out.

Deimos had been braced for disappointment. He straightened up as Brasidas waded out and got into the boat. Brasidas turned out to be a patient teacher. Sailing in the bay with its gentle breeze turned out to be easier than Deimos had thought. Fun, even. Brasidas settled into the front of the ship—the bow—and lay back. “Where were you even thinking of going?” Brasidas said, with a nod at the horizon. “You can’t get far from Lakonia without a proper ship.”

“I wasn’t going to escape,” Deimos muttered. Not yet, anyway. He wasn't ready yet.

“Not anymore?” Brasidas smiled faintly. Deimos had tried to escape repeatedly for a few weeks. It had been a waste of time. He knew that now.

“Trying to run away was pointless. It’s hard to survive on my own when I don’t know how. I don’t have anywhere to go and everyone here knows you. Besides, there are worse places than here,” Deimos said. He should know. The lioness who had killed the Priestess and the Philosopher had inadvertently freed Deimos from one such place. The agoge was brutal, but it was nothing compared to his life in the Crucible.

“Like the place you were from?” Brasidas asked. The gentleness in his voice annoyed Deimos. He stared down at the water instead and at the silver flashes of fish against the gravel. Brasidas waited for a moment, then he said, “Sail over there.” He pointed to a spot at the other side of the bay.

Deimos considered refusing, but there was no way of doing so without appearing childish. The new spot was shallower, thick with fish that sat against the sand. Brasidas drew his spear. He watched the water for a long moment, barely breathing. He launched the spear and it struck true, pinning one of the silver fish to the sand. Pulling up the spear, Brasidas shook the fish off and killed it quickly. Then he handed the spear to Deimos and lay back against the bow.

After the first few futile throws, Deimos bit out an oath, frustrated. “I’m not normally this bad,” he told Brasidas defensively.

“I didn’t say that you were.”

“The water. It slows the spear down.”

“What else?” Brasidas waited, but when Deimos stared back at him, he said, “Things in the water aren’t exactly where they appear.” Brasidas leaned over the side of the boat, pushing his arm into the water briefly. The outline grew hazy, angled oddly. “Spearfishing is good practice. It teaches you to trust your instinct over your eyes.”

“People don’t usually fight underwater.”

“It’s good practice for the practice of strategy,” Brasidas said, with a sharp smile. “And for life. Things aren’t always what they seem.”

“Is that a warning?” Deimos asked, wary.

“Being wary of trusting people is a good thing,” Brasidas said, “but being incapable of judging people is not. You’re an intelligent boy, capable of logic. Trust is an exercise of logic, in many ways.”

“I don’t trust anyone.” Deimos scoffed.

“A person who trusts no one is a coward.”

Deimos clenched his fists. “How so?”

“Because it shows that they’re afraid of getting hurt, and they’ve let fear override their reason,” Brasidas said. He closed his eyes, folding his arms over his chest. “Take us back to the beach when you’ve caught something, and I’ll show you how to scale and clean a fish.”

#

“Come here,” Brasidas said, when he got tired of Deimos peeking into the room. Brasidas was paler than usual, yet but for the bloodied bandages he wouldn’t have appeared injured at all. “Sit there.”

Deimos sat at a chair. He’d known that Brasidas had been hurt in Methone—the eiren had relished telling Deimos. Probably hoping that Deimos would have been upset. He’d felt nothing then, and had thought he’d feel nothing now—and yet. Seeing the damage up close, smelling the blood in the air, Deimos felt his gut twist up all over again. He never wanted to feel anything like loyalty for his self-appointed guardian. He didn’t. He liked Brasidas. Nothing more.

“Gash from a sword,” Brasidas said, as he started to remove his bandages. Deimos waited for Brasidas to offer some sort of excuse, but all he added was, “My opponent was a better fighter.”

“How did you survive?”

“Bemus stabbed him in the back.” Brasidas applied salves, his jaw clenched.

“That isn’t honourable.”

Brasidas chuckled as he wrapped his wound with fresh bandages, then fixed his clothes. “Honour is for duels, boy.”

“I’ve got a name,” Deimos said. The gash wasn’t the only new wound Brasidas was wearing, but it was ugly. With some effort, he looked away from it, clenching his hands in his lap under the table.

“I know your name. I’ll call you what you are. When you act like a child.”

Deimos jerked his chin up, glaring. “I’m supposed to be glad that you’re hurt?” he burst out, then bit his tongue. He hadn’t wanted to say that. He didn’t… no. When Brasidas had told him flatly that he was to stay behind because he was a child, Deimos had been angry but also a little glad. Without Brasidas around he had no ties to Sparta. Escaping the agoge was easy enough, and he knew how to ride, knew how to sail. Thanks to Brasidas he knew how to hunt and how to fish. He’d made plans to leave for good. The next day. Maybe the day after. Deimos hadn’t missed Brasidas’ presence but somehow he had stayed anyway, waiting and furious that he was waiting.

“No,” Brasidas said. He stroked Deimos’ hair and chuckled as Deimos jerked away. “You once said that you liked me, and I was wondering if that was still the case. With the way you’ve been acting since I returned.”

People who were afraid of getting hurt were cowards. Maybe it didn’t just apply to people who couldn’t trust anyone. It applied to liars too, by that logic. What was a lie but something said to avoid pain? “I still like you,” Deimos said, forcing out the words. “That’s why…” He gestured at Brasidas’ wound. “Any deeper and you might have bled out.”

“Spartans aren’t afraid of death. It’s beaten out of many of us as children. Unfortunately.”

“Unfortunately?” Deimos repeated, surprised.

“Fear is natural. Fear is a deeper part of you that’s telling you something you know to be true. If you ignore your fear—or are unable to feel it—you’re not operating with a full understanding of the situation. Which may lead to a flawed decision.”

Deimos rubbed his jaw. He was used to statements like this from Brasidas now, ones that didn’t make immediate sense and didn’t sound Spartan in the least. This habit of Brasidas had annoyed him at first, until Deimos realized that Brasidas wasn’t like this with the others. He kept his counsel and didn’t explain himself so expansively when questioned, preferring to let the consequences of his actions prove him right.

“So what am I supposed to be thinking?” Deimos asked, scowling.

“I don’t know, Deimos. What are you afraid of?”

Deimos swallowed the instinctive retort at the tip of his tongue. Getting defensive or angry would just prove Brasidas’ point. Make Deimos look like the child that Brasidas still saw him as. He looked inward instead. Tried to see the truth.

There it was.

“I’m afraid of losing you,” Deimos said. He looked away, ears burning, clenching his fists—and stiffened as Brasidas walked over and drew him into a hug with an arm around his shoulders. Tense, Deimos waited sullenly for Brasidas to pat his head and say something reassuring and patronising. In the face of silence, Deimos waited. Only when he was met with further silence did he tentatively curl his arms around Brasidas, avoiding his wounds.

“You won’t be rid of me that easily,” Brasidas said. The warmth of his words stole the sting from his amusement. He pulled away all too quickly, sitting back down with a wince. “Your eiren tells me that you’ve been behaving yourself in my absence.”

“And now you’re back. So I hope he enjoyed that while it lasted,” Deimos said, and smirked as Brasidas laughed.

#

“You’re not bad,” Pallas said, after the bout. The big man grinned, his hard eyes creasing as he did so. Deimos glared at him, sweating and frustrated. They were in Pallas’ training courtyard out the outskirts of the city proper. There were a number of other older Spartans about, most of whom had been training when Deimos had arrived but were now ostensibly drifting away after having watched the fight.

“I’ll beat him next time,” Deimos told Brasidas. Pallas fought like any other Spartan—aggressively. If Deimos had been more patient—

Brasidas chuckled from where he’d been watching the fight with Bemus, leaning against a pillar with his arms folded. “That isn’t the point of this, boy,” Brasidas said.

Boy. Deimos was starting to hate hearing that word from Brasidas. His hand clenched tightly on the hilt of the practice spear and he grit his teeth, glancing back at Pallas. “Again. With swords this time.” He was better with a sword.

“Spoken like a Spartan,” Bemus said. Not that his approval meant anything to Deimos. “Well?” Bemus asked Pallas. “I recognise it’s an unusual state of affairs, but as you can see, the boy is talented.”

“I agree that he’d be held back at the agoge,” Pallas said, with a nod at the courtyard. “He’s already more advanced than some of my men.”

“He’ll be a challenging student,” Brasidas said.

“I like challenges.” Pallas’ smile widened. There was something… off about his smile, about his friendliness. Pallas had an unsettling stare, a feverish cast to his eyes. Brasidas had given Deimos a vague description of Pallas’ background as one of Sparta’s champions, nothing more. Other than a pointed request that Deimos didn’t try to drive away yet another potential tutor.

Deimos tried not to pull a face. He hadn’t liked any of the other champions either, but nothing about them had felt wrong. He tensed up as Brasidas pushed away from the pillar and walked over to Pallas. “A word,” Brasidas said. At Pallas’ nod, Deimos started to step forward, only to be arrested by Brasidas’ glance. “Stay here,” Brasidas told him. He walked away with Pallas, heading toward an inner office.

“Try not to drive away this tutor,” Bemus told Deimos.

Deimos sniffed. He didn’t like Bemus, but whenever Brasidas was away Deimos was stuck in Bemus’ care. At least Bemus’ supervision tended to be very token. Spartan children were state assets, after all. Assets that didn’t tend to be the responsibility of the adults in general. Especially older children like Deimos. Still, it would make life difficult if he annoyed Bemus overmuch. “Brasidas didn’t talk to the other ‘tutors’,” Deimos said.

“He knows the others. He’s not too sure of Pallas.”

“Why’s that?” Brasidas hadn’t said anything of the sort.

“Pallas has a reputation. He’s nicknamed ‘the Silencer’. He likes to kill. Enjoys it.”

“Brasidas doesn’t kill?” Surely that wasn’t true.

“All soldiers have to kill sooner or later,” Bemus said. He glanced around and lowered his voice. “Pallas has a penchant for cruelty. He won’t deliver a killing blow if he doesn’t have to. Prefers to mortally wound or cripple his opponents. In an ugly a way as possible.”

Deimos glanced at Bemus, curious. “Why did you recommend him as a tutor, then?”

Bemus looked surprised at the question. “He’s one of the finest warriors of his generation.”

“But you don’t like him.”

Brasidas doesn’t like him,” Bemus corrected. He patted Deimos on the shoulder and didn’t seem to notice Deimos tensing up. “I have nothing against him. He’s a Spartan hoplite, a damned good one. And since you’ve offended all the tutors Brasidas tried to acquire for you, it isn’t as though we have much choice regardless.”

“Oh.”

Brasidas eventually emerged. He looked solemn as he walked over. “It’s settled. Deimos, you’ll be training with Pallas. Hopefully for considerably more than a week, this time. He’s promised to be more forgiving about your tendencies, but try not to push it.”

“Fine,” Deimos muttered.

“I have to attend an assembly. Behave.” Brasidas clapped Deimos on the shoulder and hurried off with Bemus on his heels. Deimos watched them go. Being elected to be an ephor meant Brasidas stayed safe in Lakonia, but it also meant that he was busy all the time.

It also meant that Deimos had one year to improve. Deimos was still only sixteen. Yet if he was strong enough, Brasidas might ignore the matter of Deimos’ age after his one year term as ephor expired and he had to return to waging campaigns. As such, when Pallas wandered back over, Deimos tried to make an effort to be appreciative. “You’re better than the other champions I fought,” Deimos said.

“I should think so.” Pallas smiled. The gesture lent no human cast to his angular features. “I have powerful friends, friends whom I’ll introduce you to, should you live up to your potential.”

Deimos had no interest in making friends, powerful or otherwise. “Am I going to have to stay here at night?”

“I expect you to be here during training hours,” Pallas said, with a light shrug. “The rest of the day is yours, and I don’t care where you spend it.”

“Good,” Deimos said. Maybe there was something about Pallas after all. “Let’s spar again. With swords this time.”

“Pick whatever weapon you like, you’re not going to beat me,” Pallas said, baring his teeth. “Not now. But in time? We’ll see.”

#

“You’re distracted,” Pallas said. He’d knocked Deimos into the dirt for the second time that morning. “What happened?”

“Brasidas came home from Pylos,” Deimos said. He picked himself up, hand clenched on his sword.

“And? He’s alive, isn’t he?”

Deimos clamped down on his anger. “Barely.”

Pallas let out a snort. Then he hesitated. “Badly crippled?”

“The doctors think he’ll have a limp, but he’ll be able to fight again.” Brasidas had treated that diagnosis with his usual calm aplomb. Even though an injury like that was going to make him a less effective warrior. Even as he grew older. Slower.

“What’s the problem then?” Pallas asked, puzzled.

“I wish… Never mind.” Pallas wouldn’t understand.

“No, say it. What do you want? Maybe I could help.”

“With your powerful friends?” Deimos growled, annoyed at being pressed.

Pallas merely stared back calmly. “That’s right.” He sheathed his sword and beckoned. “We should talk. Privately.”

Curious, Deimos followed suit. He walked with Pallas indoors, to one of the side rooms further away from the courtyard. Once there, Pallas leaned against a desk, hands on his hips. “We’ve known each other for years now,” Pallas said, “and I like to think that we consider each other friends.”

“Aye, and so?”

“So you know I’m not one for boasts.”

That was true. It was one of the very few things that Pallas had in common with Brasidas. Both of them didn’t see the point in boasting. In most other matters, they were easily opposites. “And?”

“I wasn’t joking about powerful friends,” Pallas said. He smiled thinly. “Beyond even Sparta.”

“That’s… interesting,” Deimos said. He’d thought that only Brasidas bothered to cultivate non-Spartan friends. Though even then, Brasidas’ friends tended to be politicians within allied states, powerful merchants, or mercenaries, friendships made on behalf of Sparta.

“I’m willing to help you. Let me guess. You don’t want Brasidas sent out on any further foreign campaigns.” At Deimos’ wary stare, Pallas let out a bark of laughter. “Come on, how obvious can it be? You always get into a foul mood for weeks when he leaves. And again when he returns, if he’s injured.”

“I want to go with him on a campaign.”

“Would that help? There’s an element of risk on any battlefield. Many things beyond a single person’s control. No matter how good you are. Not to mention you’ve never fought on a true battlefield before, army against army.”

Deimos tried not to be tempted. Brasidas would be safe in Lakonia. And yet. Deimos doubted that Brasidas would stay quietly in Sparta. Not while a war was waging across so many fronts. He’d slip away, and worse—he’d go to war without hoplite support. “There’s no point. He can’t be compelled to stay. Who are your friends? The kings?” Deimos asked, facetious.

Pallas smiled thinly. “You could find out. Many of them are interested in meeting you.”

“What’s the point in that?”

“You’re the best warrior I’ve ever met. You’d get better in time. Why would you be content with just this? Being just another hoplite? With your reputation, I’d be surprised if you make polemarch by yourself, let alone anything higher. You could be much more. My friends can help you with that.”

“I’m not interested in any of that. I just want to help Brasidas.”

“This attachment you have to Brasidas…” Pallas shook his head. “A real pity.”

“Why do you say that?” Deimos bristled.

“As I’ve said, you could be much more. If you ever change your mind, let me know.”

#

“Don’t you have training?” Brasidas asked, pausing in the middle of hobbling slowly up and down the field.

“I’m doing it right now,” Deimos said. He was sitting close by on a rock, watching.

“What kind of training involves sitting quietly on a rock?”

“I’m training my patience,” Deimos said, and smirked as Brasidas started to laugh. Brasidas started to walk again, painful steps, leaning heavily on a crutch. “Shouldn’t you be resting?”

“I’m feeling well enough to walk.”

“You call that walking? I’m surprised you haven’t yet fallen face-first into anything.”

“The day’s still young,” Brasidas said. He muttered a curse as he stumbled but quickly righted himself, breathing slowly.

“The doctors said you should be resting,” Deimos muttered.

“I’ve managed to stay alive for this long without listening very seriously to doctors. Deimos. Go and train. Don’t make me hobble all the way to Pallas’ villa. Did the two of you quarrel?”

“I’ve told you, I don’t like him.”

“You don’t have to like him, you just have to learn from him.”

“I could learn from you.”

“Learn what?” Brasidas was so amused that he stopped trying to ‘exercise’ and looked over at Deimos.

“Stubbornness, maybe,” Deimos growled.

“Hah! You have that and more compared to me.”

“Tactics then, O Strategos.”

That sobered Brasidas quickly. “Deimos. As you are now, I don’t think the ephors will ever trust you to be a leader of men. Not after you declined a position in the krupteía.”

“I turned down an offer to become one of the hippeis as well.”

“What?” Brasidas blinked. “When was that?”

“A day ago.” The offer had been made when he’d been training with Pallas. Pallas had been amused at first, then angry when he’d realized that Deimos wasn’t joking. They’d argued and Deimos had stormed off.

Brasidas rubbed a hand slowly over his face. “I can’t believe… I didn’t think you’d even be considered.”

“Pallas said that his friends arranged it.”

“And you declined.”

“I’m not interested.”

Brasidas groaned. “Being one of the hippeis doesn’t make you a… a palace bodyguard, or whatever you thought it might be. The hippeis are Spartans earmarked to be groomed for greater things. I was one of the hippeis for a while. So was Pallas.”

“That’s what Pallas said too.” Deimos slipped off the rock, striding over. “I’m. Not. Interested.” He leaned in for a kiss. Brasidas turned his cheek, so Deimos brushed his lips against the corner of Brasidas’ mouth instead.

“You’re frustratingly willful,” Brasidas said, though he didn’t back off. He looked tired instead. “I wonder where I went wrong.”

“The place I was before, I wasn’t a person, I was a thing,” Deimos said quietly. He’d had time to think things over when Brasidas was away, to remember. “A thing that was meant for greater things. That’s why I was already better than the other boys at the agoge when you found me. The people who found me weren’t making a warrior out of me, they were trying to forge a weapon.”

“I… thought that was the case,” Brasidas said softly. He rubbed a thumb against an old burn scar near Deimos’ wrist, one of the first he’d ever worn.

“You were the first person to treat me like a person,” Deimos said, nudging another kiss over the edge of Brasidas’ mouth. “The first person to teach me that there was value in being a person. Everyone else? They still don’t see that when they look at me. Not Bemus. Not Pallas. I don’t want to be someone else’s shield, someone else’s sword.” He pressed a grin briefly against Brasidas’ throat. “That’s where you went ‘wrong’.”

Brasidas was silent for a while, allowing Deimos to nudge kisses over his neck, over his beard. Eventually, he relented, exhaling as he kissed Deimos on the mouth. “When you put it that way,” Brasidas said wryly, “I can’t say I’m entirely displeased.”

“Good.”

“But I’m not going to let you while your days away doing nothing. If you’re not going to train with Pallas, then you’ll have to learn something from me.” Brasidas started to head back towards the house. Once inside, he sat down with a wince at the table. “The chest. There’s a stone slab with a grid. And a leather bag of tokens. Bring it here.”

“What’s this?” Deimos asked, once he obeyed. “A game?”

“Petteia. It’s popular in Athens,” Brasidas said, with a faint smile. “The game of Achilles and Ajax. Among others.” He began to array the darker coloured tokens on one side and the lighter tokens on the other. Some tokens were round, some pyramidal. “It’s a game of strategy and skill.”

“An Athenian game,” Deimos said. He grinned slyly.

“A Greek game, one that so happens to be popular in Athens. It’s a pity we’re at war. I’d have liked to play a game against Sokrates. My friend Lagos over in Arkadia plays a decent game, but business doesn’t often bring me to Arkadia.”

“Lagos? I’ve heard that name before somewhere.” In Pallas’ villa, maybe. People came by all the time to talk to Pallas, and the courtyard wasn’t that far from Pallas’ office.

“He’s the Archont of Arkadia, which is a key food-producing region for Sparta. I wouldn’t be surprised.” Brasidas finished arranging the tokens. “I’m going to explain the rules. Listen carefully, because I’m not going to repeat myself.”

Deimos looked dubiously at the board. “This is meant to be fun?”

“It can be. Especially when you play for stakes.”

“I’ve never played this game before, you’d have an unfair advantage.” Deimos paused. “What stakes?”

“What do you want? New sword? A fine horse?”

Brasidas was being facetious, but Deimos smiled and leaned over the table. “I want to spend all day in bed with you,” he purred.

“…That would be a waste of time,” Brasidas said, though he coughed and looked away to compose himself. “I want you to go back to your training. With Pallas. Apologise to him if you have to.”

“Fine,” Deimos conceded.

“We’ll play a few practice games. Once you have a grasp of the game, we’ll play for stakes.”

#

Kassandra didn’t look like him at all, even though she was supposed to be his half-sister. Deimos stared rudely at her as she slowed her horse to a halt and dismounted. He followed suit, walking with her to the edge of a cliff. She held out a clenched hand, and after a few heartbeats, a great golden eagle landed on it. “This is Ikaros,” Kassandra said, with an affectionate smile. Ikaros cocked its head, studying Deimos with a predator’s fine-tuned curiosity.

“How did you tame an eagle?” Deimos asked, curious.

“Ikaros has always been with me. I’m not trying to be evasive. I don’t remember, actually. He found me when I was growing up in Kephallonia.” Kassandra tossed Ikaros back up into the air.

“What was that like?”

“Interesting,” Kassandra said, after a moment’s thought. “I was taken in by a man who was kind enough, after a fashion. Though he wasn’t looking for a daughter, but for an extra pair of hands.” She studied Deimos soberly. “Brasidas says that he found you when you were a boy. You must have been sent to the agoge shortly afterward.”

“I was.”

Kassandra grimaced. “Did you… What was that like?”

“I wasn’t there for that long. Apparently, I was too hard to manage. Kept escaping. One day I picked a fight with ten boys and defeated all of them. Maimed one permanently. After that, Brasidas arranged for me to study with private tutors instead.”

“Unusual arrangement,” Kassandra said, frowning.

“I’m unusual. So is Brasidas.”

“Brasidas is a highly resourceful person, but I don’t think he was influential enough to arrange something like that. Have you heard of the Cult of Kosmos?”

The name sounded familiar, but in a distant way. “No.”

“They’re a secret organisation, spread across the Greek world. Controlling it. They started this war between Sparta and Athens. They count powerful people among their number, their influence is everywhere. They control the Pythia. They’re the reason why you were thrown off the cliff when you were a child. Why I was thrown off after you when I tried to stop it.”

“Interesting story,” Deimos said.

“It’s not a story. They tried to have you killed. When it didn’t work, they had priestesses tell our mater that you were dead. They took you away to keep you for themselves. They lost track of me after the mountain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been watching you all your life.”

The Priestess and the Philosopher. His earliest memories, first in a temple, then someplace else. Deimos kept his expression blank. “Does this story get more interesting?”

“It does now that I’m trying to stop them. I want you to help me.”

“Why should I?”

Kassandra shot him a startled look. “I’ve told you. They tried to kill you.”

“They failed.”

“They’ll keep trying.”

“They can keep trying. This time I won’t be so easily thrown off a cliff.”

Kassandra sucked in a slow, irritated breath. “If they can’t kill you, they’ll try to control you. Do you think they don’t know how attached you are to Brasidas? Don’t glare at me. I heard of you long before I even knew you were my brother. Brasidas’ Wolf, hm? You’re always at his side. What you did for him in Megaris—”

“Threats bore me. Is there a point to this?”

“I’m not threatening you. I’m warning you. Maláka. Are you always this annoying?”

“To me, it sounds like the Cult did us both a favour,” Deimos said, with a sharp smile. “If you had grown up in Sparta as a woman, you’d have been educated and allowed to own land, but the entire purpose of your life would’ve been to birth babies. I would have completed the agoge and become just another weapon. We’d have been good Spartans. Nothing more.” He would never have met Brasidas. Not like this.

Kassandra bared her teeth, and now Deimos could see the resemblance. Her temper was slow to wake, but now that it had it looked just as volcanic as his own. “You’re twisting the situation. We could’ve grown up with our parents. Loved.”

“Loved?” Deimos spat to the side. “You haven’t lived long in Sparta. I have. Spartans don’t love their children. Not in the way that you want. They use their children. You know this. Even now, you must have seen it in our mater. How long did it take before she started ordering you around like a soldier?”

“You think Brasidas isn’t using you?”

“He’s honest about it,” Deimos shot back. “And I’ll be honest with you. I don’t care about this Cult. I don’t care about you, or about our mater or pater or whoever else we might still have in our family. You want me to help you? Talk to Brasidas.”

Kassandra narrowed her eyes. “Brasidas is intensely loyal to Sparta. He might be reluctant to move against the Spartan members of the Cult, if they aren't actually committing treason.”

“That’s not my problem.”

Kassandra threw up her hands. “Forget it. I see I’ve wasted my time. I…” She trailed off, with a deep sigh. “Could you at least. Speak to our mater. Meet her. It’ll mean a lot to her and to me. I can even bring her to you.”

“What makes you think that I care about the welfare of strangers?” Deimos shot back, unimpressed. “Are we done?”

He’d expected more anger. Exasperation, even. Instead, Kassandra shook her head, hunched in on herself. “Alexios is your true name. I held you after you were born. You were so small. So…” She trailed off, staring out over the forest. “We’re done.”

#

Kassandra looked surprised when Deimos climbed up next to her on the cliff overlooking the village. “What are you doing here?”

“Brasidas got wind of a female misthios setting fire to supply silos in Arkadia. You, I presume. Not a lot of misthios out there who are women, let alone women with pet eagles.”

“What about it?” Kassandra asked coldly.

“Brasidas had this long message he wanted me to recite to you about how disappointed he was and about how he thought he’d explained to you before that people in Sparta would starve if you burned Arkadia to the ground, but I’ve forgotten most of it.” Deimos yawned. “Let’s just fight. I want to go home.”

“There’s a Spartan champion I want to smoke out. My contacts tell me that he’s only guaranteed to appear if Arkadia’s threatened. Since it’s the food bowl of Sparta. The ephors would dispatch him to its defense.”

“Which champion?”

“Pallas the Silencer.”

“Him?” Deimos sniffed. “Why didn’t you just talk to Brasidas?”

Kassandra frowned at Deimos, her hands twitching. “I know Brasidas asked Pallas to tutor you. He’s been your tutor for a while.”

“That he has.” Deimos sat down on the edge of the cliff, stretching out his legs. “Always talking about his powerful friends, how I’d do better with them than with Brasidas. We don’t like him.”

After a long moment, Kassandra sat down beside Deimos, her smile rueful. “Maybe I should have talked to Brasidas,” she conceded.

“Instead of burning down helot farms? Yes.”

“I doubt you care about helots.”

“I don’t care about most people. Brasidas is the one who cares.” Deimos looked out over the sleeping town. “I know where Pallas lives, if that’s what you want. You won’t be able to kill him easily though. He’s good, and he’s surrounded by elite soldiers whom he trained.”

“You know him. Perhaps he trusts you. If you can lure him out of the city somewhere quiet, I’ll handle the rest. And then I’ll apologise to Brasidas. In person.”

“Apologise to him first.”

“All right. I will.” Kassandra even looked a little embarrassed. “I suppose my pursuit of the Cult, at times, might have been too… single-minded. I forget about consequences sometimes.”

“Don’t bother explaining yourself to me. I don’t care.”

“Fine. Let’s go.”

Deimos eyed Kassandra appraisingly. “That’s it? You’re just going to go back to Lakonia with me? Pity. I wanted to fight.”

“I’m older than you. I’ll kick your ass.”

“Try it,” Deimos said, and Kassandra sniffed as she sprang to her feet.

#

“I told you not to get into a brawl,” Brasidas said, after Kassandra had wandered off to spy on Pallas’ villa. Deimos had stripped down on their bed to reapply dressing over the deeper cuts Kassandra had left on him.

“I didn’t.”

“So you got this injured running through the forest?” Brasidas sat beside him and took over with the bandages. “You gave your sister a black eye.”

“She nearly cut my stomach open,” Deimos muttered. So much for being a loving sister, or whatever Kassandra claimed to be.

“You probably deserved it. I told you to talk her out of her plans for Arkadia, not attack her.”

“I talked her out of her plans and then attacked her,” Deimos said, and smirked as Brasidas exhaled and knelt beside him on the cot to inspect the wound on his calf.

“This could have hamstrung you if it got any closer.”

“She’s good,” Deimos said, reluctant. “She didn’t even train with anyone. She just got this good on her own.”

“She’s of the blood of Leonidas. As you are. I just rather wish you’d both stop spilling it on the earth for trivial reasons.”

“Wasn’t trivial. We wanted to see which of us was better.”

“And?”

“Ended in a tie,” Deimos confessed, annoyed. It shouldn’t have been a tie. Deimos had grown up in Sparta. Tutored by champions. it should have been an easy win.

Brasidas chuckled. He kissed Deimos on the knee, beard ticklish against Deimos’ inner thigh. “Pride is—”

“—often a lie that you tell yourself about yourself, yes, yes.” Deimos entwined his fingers into Brasidas’ braid, tugging him hopefully closer.

“Sometimes I feel like I’ve actually taught you nothing,” Brasidas said. He pressed a wry smile to Deimos’ thigh as Deimos made a grouchy sound, and licked up to the musky juncture of thigh and pelvis.

“You’ve taught me a lot of things,” Deimos disagreed, his breath catching as Brasidas undid his loincloth. “Like how to… nfh… wriggle out of the terms of a bet and somehow maintain the moral high ground.”

“You’re still upset about that?” Brasidas kissed the tip of Deimos’ firming cock. “Neither of us can afford the time to lie in bed all day.”

“That’s what you think. Besides, we weren’t going to just lie in bed,” Deimos said, nudging his hips pointedly forward. Brasidas shot him a warning glance but obligingly sucked him in slowly as he went still, drinking him down in an unhurried slide. They were both better at this now than at the start, when Deimos had been fumbling if enthusiastic and Brasidas had been out of practice. Brasidas’ tongue curled against the cock stretching his lips as he sucked more of it down, until it was wedged past the back of his throat and he couldn’t get more of it in. He closed his hand over the rest and groaned as Deimos’ hand tightened experimentally over the braid.

Brasidas was going to allow this liberty today then. Taking a few tight breaths to calm himself down, Deimos started to thrust carefully against Brasidas’ mouth. His free hand clenched tightly against the edge of the cot as Brasidas let out a muffled moan. With a snarl, Deimos got to his feet, pulling Brasidas up against his cock as Brasidas instinctively tried to pull back. Wedged his cock a little deeper and felt Brasidas’ throat close helplessly against it, felt him gag and cough and adjust, hands stroking over Deimos’ thighs as he sucked. Deimos could never hang on when he had Brasidas like this, on his knees, buried in the wet heat of his mouth. He gasped Brasidas’ name as he spent himself, still rocking against Brasidas’ lips, still hungry.

Brasidas coughed and swallowed, sitting back and wiping his mouth. He yelped as Deimos shoved him onto his back and straddled him. Deimos licked Brasidas clean, chasing his taste in his mouth. Over his tongue. Raked his clawed fingertips over the floor beside Brasidas’ head as he breathed in low and hungry gasps. “Go on then,” Brasidas said, his voice rusty. He stroked Deimos’ cheek with tender fingers. Deimos buried his mouth against Brasidas’ throat, shuddering in delight. Giving a prayer of thanks for the permission he’d been given. He groped for some of the salve he’d been using on the bed and smirked at Brasidas’ disapproving stare as he used that to slick up his fingers.

“What?” Deimos asked, as he pushed two inside himself, already impatient.

“A waste of medical supplies.”

“Think of it as saving time.” Deimos screwed in his fingers to the knuckles, panting a little as it stung. “Presumably you want me… aah… to help Kassandra when she springs her half-assed plan on Pallas. This way I’d actually be able to walk. Which will help.”

“Her plan is unfortunately simplistic,” Brasidas conceded. He leaned up on his elbows, watching Deimos prepare himself with darkening eyes.

“It’s not a bad plan,” Deimos conceded, “assuming she survives.”

“By that standard could many plans be judged ‘not bad’,” Brasidas said. He tensed up as Deimos got bored of prep, pulling off Brasidas’ loincloth and slicking his cock with more of the salve. “Deimos. Patience.”

“No. She’ll be back soon, once she realizes that Pallas really does stay all day in his villa training. You probably wouldn’t want to do this if she’s around. Or. Not?” Deimos asked, curious, as Brasidas stared at him with a frozen look.

“She’ll be back? Soon?” Brasidas tried to get to his feet. Annoyed, Deimos shoved him back against the side of the cot, stroking him until his cock was fully plump. He kissed Brasidas as Brasidas tried to complain, easing himself down on thickened flesh. Ignoring the sting from the stretch, Deimos screwed himself down, breathing hard and chuckling as Brasidas cursed. “Deimos!”

“You feel so good,” Deimos whispered hotly against Brasidas’ ear. His peaked nipples pressed against Brasidas’ cuirass, and he rubbed shamelessly against the tempered metal as he ground down to take the thick root of Brasidas’ cock inside himself. “I like having you inside me.”

“Deimos,” Brasidas gasped. His hands curled tightly over Deimos’ hips. “Hurry, then. If you must.”

“Maybe we should let her catch us at this. She seems fond of you. I don’t like that.” Deimos tugged at the lobe of Brasidas’ ear with his teeth as he breathed slowly, trying to adjust to the intrusion inside him.

“What’s wrong with that? We’re friends, and your sister’s a useful friend to have.”

“You don’t need her.”

“Jealousy’s… hnn… an irrational emotion,” Brasidas said, his voice hitching as Deimos rolled his hips. “It’s an inefficient—”

“You want to preach me a lesson? Right now?” Deimos said, incredulous.

“Since I now appear to have your full attention.” Brasidas slapped Deimos lightly on the ass. “Move, Deimos.” He kissed Deimos roughly, nipping him. “Go on,” Brasidas growled between them. “Satisfy me.”

Teeth bared, Deimos rode Brasidas savagely against the cot until he noticed Brasidas wincing each time he was balls deep. With a harsh breath, Deimos pulled free. He ignored Brasidas’ indignant glare, hauling Brasidas up onto the cot and pushing him down onto his back. Deimos twisted away from Brasidas’ attempt to grapple him and let out a snarl as he sat back down on Brasidas’ cock, bracing one knee against Brasidas’ flank and the other leg on the floor. With the leverage he now had, he curled his nails into Brasidas’ arm and shoulder, holding him down as he fucked himself, the house growing loud with their moans and the wet slaps of their bodies. Brasidas shivered as he spent himself, hips nudging up desperately against Deimos as he spilled. He watched, breathing slowly, as Deimos tugged lazily at his own cock, taking his time to reach his finish.

#

Deimos found Kassandra snooping around some distance away. His sister kept avoiding his eyes. “You were right. I can’t get to Pallas in his villa. Are you sure that you can lure him out safely? I’ve found a good spot for an ambush.”

“I can try,” Deimos said. That was all he promised Brasidas that he would do. “I’ll tell him I want to learn how to fight on horseback and I want to learn somewhere quiet because Brasidas doesn’t approve.” Pallas was one of the few Spartans who knew how to fight on horseback. Probably because Pallas also liked horses far more than he liked people. Sometimes Deimos understood the sentiment.

“Right. Uh. Tonight? Or. Tomorrow? If you need to recover.”

“Recover from what?” Deimos asked, pretending puzzlement. “You didn’t hurt me that badly from our duel.”

“I… never mind.” Kassandra’s ears turned a little pink. “Just. So you know. You and Brasidas. Are rather loud.”

“Oh, that.” Deimos made a show of indifference. “Tonight, tomorrow, it won’t matter. When he wakes up, I’m going to have him again. When did you want to meet Pallas?”

“Tonight. I’ll show you the place. Just. Don’t get distracted and forget about that, all right?”

“If I must,” Deimos said. He smirked. Deimos was in a good enough mood that he didn’t flinch back when Kassandra rolled her eyes and smacked him on the arm. Maybe this sibling situation could be tolerable. If anything, it seemed to please Brasidas that Deimos and Kassandra were ‘getting along’, as Brasidas put it later, when Deimos got home with a fresh set of wounds.

“Nothing like being shot at by archers together for bonding,” Deimos said, as Brasidas dressed the wound high on his arm where a lucky arrow had found its mark. He hated having to pull arrows out of himself.

“Battle does have a way of drawing people together. Especially Spartans. And the two of you are Spartans, no matter how much you like to deny it.” Brasidas tied off the bandage. “Pallas?”

“Dead.”

“Where did the archers come from?”

“The fight spilled out to a road and some mercenaries happened to be passing by.” Deimos scowled. “I told them to mind their own business but they refused. Now they’re dead too. Fuck them.”

“The bodies?”

“Left them in the bushes outside a bear’s den. Kassandra said she’ll break down their gear for scrap.”

Brasidas shook his head. “All this was risky. People might link Pallas’ disappearance to you.”

“Would you rather Kassandra set fire to Arkadia instead? No? Thought not. Besides. It’s true that he had to die. Do you know what he said to me at the end? Apparently, the Cult wanted to make me King of Sparta.” Deimos shuddered. “That would’ve been a nightmare.”

Brasidas tried to look serious but started chuckling instead. “For you, or for everyone?”

“Probably everyone.” Deimos poked Brasidas. “You would’ve made a good king.”

“Me? Not at all. There’s much about Sparta that I want to change. I would’ve thrown things into chaos. What next? Surely Pallas isn’t the last of the Cult.”

“Kassandra asked me to go with her somewhere. I forget. Didn’t care. You’re going to Amphipolis, aren’t you?”

Brasidas nodded. “Kleon’s preparing for an attack on the city. The word is, he’ll be leading the attack personally. His death might change the war.”

“Peace? With the death of just one man?”

“Peace, or something close to it.” Brasidas kissed Deimos’ bared shoulder when he opened his mouth. “You’ll be coming with me.”

Deimos relaxed. “Good. I thought I’d have to persuade you.”

“I took you with me to Korinth, didn’t I?”

“You didn’t have a choice there. You weren’t assigned any hoplites.” Deimos nuzzled Brasidas’ temple. “Kassandra once told me that she’d heard of me, before she knew who I was to her. ‘Brasidas’ Wolf’, she called me.”

“Fitting, in a way, given your pater’s nickname.” Brasidas stroked his fingers through Deimos’ thick hair. “A tame wolf is a dog, and dogs have no choice about their masters.” He pressed his thumb against Deimos’ mouth and chuckled as Deimos bit him. “You’re not tame in the least.”

“You like it that way,” Deimos said, and sucked the bloodied thumb into his mouth.