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“What are you doing here, sister?” Alexios scowled as he stalked through the sun-dappled olive grove. “Sparta is mine.”

“Don’t be so childish.” Kassandra was leaning in the shade of a tree, watching something in a glade beyond. She wore a golden cuirass hung with intricately patterned leather straps, gems, and purple strips. Her helmet was nowhere to be seen, her thick braid curled over one blue-cloaked shoulder. The Aegis was strapped to her back with her spear, though Medusa’s head was sealed out of the battlefield, visible only as a fine etching on shining brass.

“Oh, I’m being childish? The last time I caught you here, you nearly started a riot,” Alexios hissed. He didn’t bother much with pretty strips or gems. His armour on a passing glance would look like any other Spartan’s, a serviceable cuirass worn over a red tunic. He wore no shield, only a short sword at his hip and a bow.

Kassandra sniffed loudly. “That batch of enslaved helots were from one of my cities. You haven’t even returned all of them. I’m within my rights to start another riot.”

“Don’t you dare.” Alexios looked out over the glade and hesitated. Kassandra was unpredictable, but Alexios hadn’t been expecting her to be watching a child at play. A Spartan boy, by the look of it. He was putting together a set of stones, sticks, and pebbles, frowning in concentration.

Kassandra smirked at Alexios’ surprise. “Brother. It’s my birthday tomorrow.”

“And?”

“And you still owe me. Not just for the helots. I know that you had a hand in sinking those ships near Megaris.”

“I’ve apologised to Barnabas,” Alexios said dismissively.

“They were Athenian ships. Our uncle might be the God of the Sea, but those ships were mine. A favourite of mine was on board, and you knew that,” Kassandra growled. There was a rumble of thunder overhead. The boy looked up, puzzled as he saw only clear sky.

“Well, what do you want for your birthday?” Alexios said, with ill grace. There was no use arguing with Kassandra. Especially since the Spartan ships had started the fight. Alexios had known who had been on board the Athenian flagship. He’d been particularly bored that day, or he wouldn’t have responded to the Spartans’ desperate prayers once the fight had started—it wasn’t normally worth the family strife.

“That boy.”

“What?” Alexios stared at her. “No!”

“He’s just a boy. Give him to me and I’ll forgive you the matter of the helots, the ships, even that time you broke my favourite spear.”

“That was an accident. Why are you so interested in him? He’s hardly the strongest boy in his generation.” Alexios usually kept an eye on the most promising warriors in the agoge, out of professional curiosity if nothing else. “If he has free time right now he should be hunting. Or trying to steal food to feed himself. Playing is something that other Greek children do.”

“Since he’s not one of your favourites, then you wouldn’t mind giving him to me.” Kassandra smiled sweetly, which instantly made Alexios wary. He walked out into the glade, folding down his presence as he did so. The boy looked up, startled, when Alexios got close. His brown eyes flicked over Alexios’ garb to his face, then down to his short sword.

“Shouldn’t you be at the agoge, boy?” Alexios asked.

The boy got to his feet. Not bad—he’d already braced himself to run in case Alexios was hostile. “I’m training,” he said, his voice firm and assured. “My eiren will be looking for me soon. He knows I’m here.”

Alexios could taste the lie in the air, but it was confidently said. Confident enough for mortal ears. Clever. “Training, hm?” Alexios went down on his haunches to look at the stones and sticks. “This is training? What kind of training?”

“You’re scaring the boy,” Kassandra said behind him. The boy looked up sharply, his mouth falling open. Alexios didn’t blame him for his shock. There weren’t many women in armour anywhere, not even in Sparta. Let alone beautiful women dressed in Kassandra’s habitual finery. She smiled, using her spear to gently nudge a shell. “Is this supposed to be General Myronides?”

Alexios blinked. He looked at the boy, then back at the assortment of rocks and sticks. Now he could make out the representative terrain, the shape of the battlefield. “This is the Battle of Oenophyta?” He grimaced. “What are you even playing at? Athens won this battle.”

“They didn’t have to,” the boy said. He folded his arms, meeting Alexios’ stare with a strange calm that was beyond his age. “I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Oh?” Alexios said, amused now. “Well, come on then. How could Sparta have won this war?”

“Sparta wasn’t in this war. We won in Tanagra but lost too many men to press our advantage. At Oenophyta the Athenians only faced the Boeotians,” the boy said. He gestured at the battlefield. “Ideally, Tanagra would have been resolved in a way that didn’t conclude in so many losses. Unlike Athens, Sparta does not have hoplites to spare.”

“You didn’t answer my question, boy.” With a gesture, Alexios caused the stones and rocks to flatten out over the grass, melting into a stone table. Grass and hills sprouted over the table, the world made miniature. The Athenian contingent grew out of the soil, stubs of rock at first before gathering detail, the 14,000 men arrayed neatly. On the other side, the Boeotians, already restless and afraid. “You are outnumbered. Sparta has departed. How do you win?”

“Show off,” Kassandra told him.

The boy had grown pale, but he didn’t react by fleeing or screaming. Spartans were made of sturdier stock than that. Slowly, fascinated, he studied the battleground for a while, walking this way and that. “There’s no winning this war at this point,” the boy said, “but there are ways of winning from before this point.”

“Let me guess. By convincing the Spartans to stay.”

“No. It’s clear from history that any Spartan general who wishes to stay reliably successful cannot always rely on Sparta,” the boy said, then bit down on his lip, as though he’d said too much.

Alexios laughed. The laugh uncurled from inside him involuntarily, a flowering chuckle that turned into a roar. He dismissed the playing board with another gesture, grinning. “What is your name, boy?”

“Brasidas,” Brasidas said. He narrowed his eyes, looking between them. First at Alexios. “And you are Alexios and Kassandra. The Gods of War.” His voice shook a little, but his gaze was steady. Insolently so, even. Curious.

“War and Wisdom. At least in my case,” Kassandra said, with a playful grin.

“You can’t have him,” Alexios told Kassandra.

“We’ll see.” She too, went down on a knee. “Brasidas, you’re already more mine than my brother’s. Don’t you see it? To be one of his favourites is to be undefeated on the battlefield. Until you meet glorious, impossible odds. Then you’d die brutally, pierced by a dozen spears. Statues will be made of you, songs will be sung about you. But you will just be a warrior, nothing more.”

“Nothing more, she says,” Alexios muttered.

Kassandra ignored him. “With me, you will be a leader of men. You could be a conqueror, a breaker of kings. You could burn your name into history—for as long as people have memories they will remember who you were.”

“War, with wisdom or without,” Brasidas whispered. He shivered.

“Don’t listen to her. Her favourites always end up too clever by half. More often than not, they get exiled to Persia,” Alexios said, ignoring the dirty look Kassandra shot him.

“I… forgive me. I have to go. May I be excused?” Brasidas asked nervously. Alexios inclined his head, and the boy fled.

Alexios and Kassandra watched Brasidas hurry away in mixed bemusement. Kassandra started to chuckle, getting to her feet. “He’ll come over to me eventually,” Kassandra said, her smile sharp. “Someone with a mind like that won’t last long in Sparta.”

“Fuck off,” Alexios growled, annoyed. It’d be just like Kassandra to poach his people out of spite. He’d have to get someone to watch the boy.

#

“Which battle is this now?”

Brasidas flinched so violently that he nearly fell off the roof of the building. A hand shot out, grasping his shoulder and righting him. The skin of the god was warm, near feverishly so. Alexios sat on a chest, looking down at the array of smaller boxes, stones, and fruit that Brasidas had spread out on the mat.

“I…” Brasidas swallowed. “I thought it was a dream. Seeing you and your sister.”

Alexios let out a snort. “Come now. I know you’ve seen my eagles.”

Brasidas had tried to rationalise those away as well. Prey had been abundant in the last few years, he’d told himself. The eagles had come because they were feeding well. “You set them to watch me.”

“It would’ve been just like my sister to try and steal you.” Alexios gestured impatiently at the boxes and stones. “Well?”

“Battle of Lade,” Brasidas said. He tried not to stare. When he had been a little boy who’d thought he’d dreamed of himself meeting the Gods, he hadn’t remembered much of either of them afterward. Only that they’d been beautiful, and that Alexios had looked like a Spartan hoplite. Now he wondered how he could have forgotten. Alexios was savagely beautiful. His divinity was obvious in the aching perfection of his face, in his impossible unhurried grace. If Alexios was merely the God of War, surely then the Goddess of Beauty would be impossible to behold.

Alexios sniffed. “Another battle that didn’t involve Spartans.” He didn’t make a gesture this time, but the boxes melted into the ground, which started to ripple in turn into tiny waves. Peninsulas rose out of the stone, mountains arching into ridges. The Ionian fleet clustered near the island of Lade, the Persian fleet threatening them from close by.

“I don’t see why the study of war has to be limited to the Spartan experience,” Brasidas said. He hesitated, nervous. “Your, ah, Divine Maj—”

Alexios made a dismissive gesture. “Call me Alexios. Let me guess. You’d have found a way to get the Samians to stay loyal.”

“I would have tried,” Brasidas said, with a wry confidence that made Alexios snort.

“Do any of your tactics actually involve direct engagement with the enemy? Assume the Samians inevitably would have been intimidated. What now?”

“I wouldn’t have faced the Persians in direct battle like this if I could. I would have tried to prepare. Small fishing boats could be scattered over the water, strapped with barrels of oil or pitch covered in cloth, perhaps. Fire arrows to follow. That might seriously damage some of the ships.”

“You don’t sound enthusiastic.”

Brasidas shrugged helplessly. “It’s not easy to feel enthusiastic about a near-hopeless situation.”

“Then why dwell on it?”

“I use it to focus. I don’t find it instructive to dwell just on the battle in question. Forces must develop for a battle to commence. For so many people to be moved to one area, for them to be pitted against each other to their deaths. I’m curious about the entirety of war, not just the winning or losing of skirmishes.”

“Isn’t it important to win skirmishes?” Alexios asked. He sounded amused.

“There are different ways to ‘win’ in a situation,” Brasidas said. He tentatively tried to pick up one of the small Persian ships. It bobbed over his fingers, floating in the air, beautiful and impossible. He smiled with a pleasure that he couldn’t suppress.

“Is there?”

“A short term gain on one theatre of war that leads to a long term loss is not a win.” Brasidas tried to put the ship back, but it turned solid over his fingers, with its tiny rigging and sails picked out in perfect miniature.

“Keep it,” Alexios said. He looked over the stretches of abandoned fields. Today the helots wouldn’t be farming—those who weren’t dead already would be hiding. Smoke was rising in the distance, dark and oily. “You know where the helots are hiding.”

It wasn’t a question. “I do. It’s not hard to infer it from their houses.”

“So why haven’t you gone after them? This is the yearly war.”

Brasidas’ lip curled in distaste. “I don’t see the point of it. It isn’t a war. It’s a massacre.” Once a year, after the election of the ephors, a brief war was formally declared on the helots. “There’s no strategic significance to it.”

“The helots vastly outnumber the Spartans. The yearly war keeps them subjugated.”

Brasidas shook his head. “By murdering them each year, by treating them as property, we compress all of us into an endless cycle of war and revolt and bloodshed. This yearly ‘war’ against the helots is more of a mass sacrifice. To you. Because Sparta’s God is a merciless God, a God of all that is violent and cruel about war.”

Brasidas hadn’t meant to say that, but before Alexios’ knowing smile the words tumbled out anyway. “Careful, boy,” Alexios said. Somewhere overhead, an eagle shrieked.

“With our citizenship so limited we’ll stay restricted to the land we have. Worse, we’ll likely decline,” Brasidas told him, hands clenched on his lap. “Sparta will someday be no more. This state of affairs isn’t tenable over the long term. It’s precarious.”

“Yet Athens will endure?”

“A flawed city as well in many ways, but with fewer critical flaws.” Brasidas picked up one of the Greek ships this time.

“You speak treason.”

“I’m speaking my mind. As you asked. I know my duty, even if I don’t entirely agree with the means.” Brasidas tried a wry smile of his own. “To serve Sparta.”

“To serve me,” Alexios said, though he looked amused.

“I hope not to,” Brasidas said, before he could help it.

It felt like the truth was being forced from him just from sitting in the presence of his God. He stiffened as cold sweat trickled down his back, expecting anger. Alexios laughed instead, a deep ringing sound full of the savage glory of power. It had haunted his sleep before. It made his mouth go dry now, even as Alexios vanished. The new ship he held turned into sand as the rest of the board reverted. Brasidas opened the palm he had clenched over the Persian ship. It sat over his skin, still impossible, still perfect.

#

Alexios swept down on the trireme in the shape of an eagle and landed as a man near its helm. The captain at the helm glanced briefly at him before looking back toward the horizon. “You’re late, Alexios,” Barnabas said.

“I don’t see Kassandra anywhere.” Barnabas had asked the both of them to attend him. Alexios had been reluctant, if curious. He did like his uncle, but Barnabas was even more unpredictable than Kassandra. As he was now, in human form, Barnabas eschewed ornamentation of any sort. He wore a simple gray tunic and sandals, his gray hair unkempt over a scarred face. Why the God of the Sea preferred to look like a homeless old man was beyond Alexios.

“Here.” One of the crewmen close by turned around, stepping forward. With another step, he became Kassandra in her full regalia, helmet and all.

Barnabas tutted. “Kassandra. I’ve told you about sneaking on board my ship. What, are you trying to make this old man die of fright?”

“That’ll be the day,” Kassandra said, patting her uncle on his arm. “What did you want?”

“To have a friendly chat. Some wine?” Barnabas asked.

“A friendly chat,” Alexios said dryly, “aboard the Adrestia. Your warship.”

“She’s a fine little boat, isn’t she? Built her myself,” Barnabas said, patting the helm affectionately. “Wine,” he told the closest crewman, who nodded and hurried away.

Kassandra watched him go with a scowl. “That’s Admiral Phokion. He’s one of mine.”

“Was, niece, was.” Barnabas clapped her on the shoulder. “Then he died at sea and here he is.”

“What did you want to talk about?” Alexios asked.

“Why, can’t an uncle see his favourite niece and nephew once in a while?” Barnabas looked hurt. “Ayy! The two of you, always so busy. By the way, you should visit your mater more often. She’s having a disagreement with your pater.”

“They’ve been having that disagreement since the Trojan War,” Kassandra pointed out. “It’s probably not going to be resolved anytime soon.”

“Which is why it’s about time, yes?” Barnabas smiled hopefully.

“She probably shouldn’t have tricked Nikolaos into falling into a deep sleep so that she and my dear sister could murder some mortals,” Alexios said, with a pointed stare at Kassandra. “Probably shouldn’t have conspired with my sister to stab me repeatedly with spears, at that.”

“Aww, you’re still upset about that?” Kassandra marched over, pulling off her helmet. Alexios stiffened as his sister hugged him and kissed him playfully on the cheek. “There. All better.”

He shoved her off, scowling. “Don’t touch me. If you want this argument of hers to end,” Alexios told Barnabas, “then you probably should just get Nikolaos to apologise.”

Barnabas’ eyebrows rose. “He won’t. He wasn’t the one at fault.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Alexios said, who actually understood women—and his mother—more than most. “She’s not even really that angry at him any longer.”

“That’s the problem with grudges between our kind,” Kassandra said, with a deep sigh. “Immortality makes forgiveness more difficult than it should be. We turn slights into wars, answer outrage with vengeance.”

“You’re one to talk,” Alexios muttered.

“Well,” Barnabas said plaintively, “just do something. Please. Yesterday, Nikolaos got into such a mood that he threw a thunderbolt that nearly set me and my ship on fire! I was only passing by! Something has to be done.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Kassandra said, pursing her lips. “That popular story about how they married, for example. I could get some Athenian playwrights to write plays with the proper facts. Or get Stentor to get his Pythia to issue a decree.”

“The one where pater supposedly… turned into a cuckoo during a thunderstorm of his making to get into mater’s house to rape her?” Alexios grimaced. “She’d have incinerated him on the spot if he’d actually tried something like that. I’ve never understood why the mortals thought that was true. Or how they even thought up that story. Mortals.”

“They make me laugh,” Kassandra said, though she wasn’t laughing.

#

“Congratulations,” Kassandra said. She picked up the golden laurel from the desk, twirling it in her fingers.

Brasidas yelped. He’d been getting ready for bed, about to strip off his tunic. Now he stumbled back against the wall, wide-eyed and automatically groping for his spear. “What are you doing here? Sparta isn’t your land.”

“The first we met, we were in Sparta, remember? I’ll go where I want. For all his bluster, my little brother won’t stop me from doing that.” Kassandra slouched into a chair, looping one wrist through the laurel. The gold leaves melded to her skin, sprouting more loops and branches, arching eagerly up toward her shoulder. “How was your first taste of war?”

“Methone wasn’t my first taste of war,” Brasidas said. Surely Kassandra knew that.

“War as it should be,” Kassandra said, grinning sharply. “A young Spartan hero, leading the relief of Methone. Breaking the siege thanks to his brilliant tactics, saving the citizenship from starvation. Impressive.”

“You don’t sound impressed.”

“I’m not easily impressed,” Kassandra conceded.

“Was Themistokles impressive?” Brasidas asked.

Kassandra inclined her head. “Wasn’t he? A genius strategos, an Archon, a champion of the common folk. The hero of Salamis.”

“Exiled from Greece, defecting to Persia.”

“A warning to all impressive people,” Kassandra said, lifting her shoulder into a light shrug. “The favour of the gods does not make you impervious to the disfavour of your people. Measures have to be taken, ones that he felt were beneath him.”

“Did he know that he was favoured by you?”

“Of course.” Kassandra looked wistful. “We used to have such incredible arguments. He’d always end up shouting at me whenever I visited him. When we finally parted at the borders of Greece he told me that he hated me and all of my kind. I miss him.” At Brasidas’ puzzled stare, Kassandra laughed. “Immortality is a long and violent state of being to be, Brasidas. I appreciate the occasional burst of levity.”

“His exile was funny to you?”

“If I didn’t endeavour to find humanity amusing, I would’ve probably tried to destroy a rather large number of all of you a long time ago.” The golden leaves enveloping her arm started to shrivel.

“Why?”

“I’m the Goddess of Wisdom and War,” Kassandra said, as the laurel fell off her skin. “I’m the patron Goddess of the Athenian Empire, one of the world’s greatest military powers. Yet were I a mortal Athenian woman, I would be unable to vote, unable to own land, unable to inherit. I would have little purpose beyond the birthing and rearing of children. I would be married while still a child, likely to a man whom I would not love, who would rape me on my wedding night. I’m not unaware of the irony of all that.” She clenched her fist, and the laurel appeared within it, whole but blackened.

“Can’t you change that?” Brasidas asked. He’d wondered this himself now and then, ever since he’d accepted that the Gods were real. “Athens is yours. In Sparta, women can own land and inherit, a precedent that you could point to. You could make basic changes. Give Athenian women financial autonomy.”

“The Gods aren’t as powerful as you think,” Kassandra said, with a sad smile. “We are not mortal, and as such, we cannot effect lasting changes on the mortal fabric of the universe. We can only give our favour to a few, and hope that they do some good with what they are given.” She held out her hand. “Come with me.”

“What do you want?”

“Defect to Athens. You’ll rise far. Become strategos in a year. You can end this war with Sparta. Conquer the Greek world. As the ruler of an empire, you could change our world. Stop the yearly helot purges in Sparta. Give women some measure of equality in Athens.” Kassandra’s face was tight with unsettling hunger. “Do some good. Come.”

“Athens is vast compared to Sparta,” Brasidas said, though he could not meet her eyes. “Surely there is an Athenian in Athens who is better at war than I. You have Thoukydídēs. Perikles. Demosthenes—”

“I have them and more. They won’t do what I want. Do you think I haven’t asked?”

Brasidas steeled himself. He dared to walk over, to sit on a chair beside Kassandra and reach over to clasp her hand. Like her brother, she was feverishly warm. She met his eyes. Reality sharpened over Kassandra’s face, cutting away and aside into odd angles. For a heartbeat it felt as though he was a mouse, looking into the huge eyes of a great owl. “The things you want cannot be brought about by war,” Brasidas said. His voice sounded far away, forced out from a great distance.

Kassandra jerked her hand away. Brasidas coughed, breathing in great shuddering gulps. “I hoped for better from you,” she said, and vanished.

Once she did, an eagle settled on the window sill. It cocked its head, studying Brasidas with one fierce golden eye. When he stayed silent, it clacked its beak as though in laughter and threw itself back up towards the sky. On the table, the laurel stayed blackened. Brasidas locked it into his personal chest with the ship.

#

Alexios stepped from Olympus to Sparta in a heartbeat, folding himself out of reality and back into it. As he stepped noiselessly into Brasidas’ bedchamber, a quip ready on the tip of his tongue, he hesitated. Brasidas was curled on his bed, his back to Alexios. His shoulders were drawn tight, his loincloth undone over his hips. Brasidas was slowly pumping oil-slicked fingers into himself, puckered muscle stretched and pink over his knuckles as he breathed in hoarse gasps. As he touched something inside himself he stiffened and groaned a name that would’ve been too low for mortal ears to catch. Alexios knew that name. It was the first name he had ever heard. His.

Grinning lazily, Alexios walked soft-footed over to the bed. When Brasidas clenched his free hand over his tunic and moaned his name again, Alexios bent, brushing Brasidas’ ear with his lips. “Yes?”

Brasidas flinched violently. Alexios clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle his yell of shock and grabbed his wrist to keep his fingers where they were. He slipped the hand over Brasidas’ mouth around the back of his neck, hauling him up to kiss him, licking demandingly into Brasidas’ mouth until Brasidas was clutching at his shoulder for air. Amused, Alexios climbed onto the bed, pushing Brasidas’ thighs open. “Go on,” Alexios said, watching the flush climb brighter up Brasidas’ skin. “Don’t let me stop you.”

“You… I didn’t intend…” Brasidas swallowed hard, though he still raked a desperately hungry gaze up Alexios’ body.

“Go on,” Alexios repeated. He pushed Brasidas’ fingers up and into himself, making Brasidas buck with a whine. “I want to watch.”

Brasidas glared at him. His defiance was fiercer today, broken through with helpless anger. He hesitated for a long and insolent silence, then his breath hissed out through clenched teeth. Alexios could count Brasidas’ surrender in moans. He kissed Brasidas’ throat, nuzzled down to his collar. Alexios willed the tunic away and licked the salty tang of mortal sweat from Brasidas’ chest as he bit out a low whimper. Brasidas’ thighs fell further apart as he began to work his fingers inside himself, tentatively at first, then roughly, when Alexios growled and bit down hard in the flesh just above his nipple.

Alexios licked over the mark, then sucked playfully on the nipple when Brasidas shivered and gulped. “Is it true,” Brasidas rasped, “that to see the true form of a god is to die? The legend of Semele and your father—”

“Many of the ‘legends’ you people tell yourselves about us are wrong,” Alexios said, kissing down Brasidas’ ribs to his belly. “All those strange stories about my pater raping people as a swan, a bull, or a shower of coins... I’m not even sure how the last one works. You mortals.” He curled his tongue over the swollen tip of Brasidas’ cock and chuckled as Brasidas bucked for it.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Brasidas said, though his eyes were squeezed shut. Alexios grinned, leaning up briefly to kiss one eyelid, then the other.

“Why,” Alexios whispered, kissing his cheek, “are you that curious?”

“I am,” Brasidas said. He jerked with a cry as Alexios pushed Brasidas’ fingers in to the knuckles, then hissed as Alexios pressed in a finger of his own into the tight heat. “I want to know.”

“You’ve been to war, Brasidas. You already know my true form.” Alexios kissed his parting lips, thrust his tongue deep. He kissed Brasidas roughly, until Brasidas jerked away struggling for air. “You know me the way all warriors know me. The noise, the violence and blood, the stink of the dying, the joy and glory, the fear and despair. You know me well.” He willed his armour and clothes away, draping his body over Brasidas’ scarred skin. Brasidas gasped as Alexios’ cock rubbed against the back of his palm. “You might not want to serve me,” Alexios said beside his ear, “but you want to belong to me.”

“I am Spartan,” Brasidas said, looking up at him with a wry smile, “and you are my God. Whether I like it or not.”

“It isn’t as linear as you think,” Alexios said. He ground himself against Brasidas again, against both their knuckles. “Go on, then. Give yourself to me.”

Brasidas stared at him, his eyes dark with lust and defiance both. He pulled their fingers from himself but flipped Alexios onto his back with a wrestling move as graceful as anything Alexios could have managed, leaning down to kiss Alexios. A mortal, daring to demand a taste from a God. “I won’t do that,” Brasidas whispered, his voice husky with desire, “but I will have you.” He squeezed oiled fingers over Alexios’ thickened cock, sneaking down a glance that made the colour deepen in his cheeks.

“You’re insolent,” Alexios said, though he rubbed his hands up and down Brasidas’ spread thighs, over the straining muscle. “I can ease the pain.”

“Don’t. I want it to hurt.” Brasidas caught his lower lip in his teeth as he guided Alexios into him, the stretch not near enough as Alexios pushed through the tight ring of muscle with some difficulty. Alexios grinned wolfishly. Alexios pulled Brasidas down, drinking in his sharp cry of pain, his lust, the violence of their act and the vicious joy in Brasidas’ defiance. So much like war itself.

Alexios gave no quarter because Brasidas had asked for none. He ground up to the hilt and watched Brasidas’ face contort in agonised ecstasy. Brasidas dug his fingertips into Alexios’ arms, leaving no mortal marks. His breaths heaved out in hoarse gasps as he started to move, though it had to hurt, easing up to the tip and using his weight to drop himself back down in a rush. He bowed his head, his lips parting over strangled prayers.

Brasidas bit out a high-pitched sob as Alexios moved against him, playfully at first, then with increasingly powerful thrusts, until he had to hold on and brace himself and ride it out the best that he could. Alexios breathed in his worship, swallowed it, clawed his fingers into Brasidas’ hips and demanded more. It was the nature of war to demand more, more than any mortal could bear. And yet like millions before and after him, Brasidas gave. His arousal was flagging from the pain but his face was bright with fervour. Brasidas rode Alexios until his thighs gave out, and only then, through hoarse gasps, did he beg. “Please—Alexios—please,” Brasidas choked out. Blunt nails clawed down Alexios’ chest. “Please.”

“You’re not one of my chosen favourites,” Alexios said, grinning as he stroked his palm over Brasidas’ cheek. “I don’t have to answer your prayers.”

“Not a chosen favourite, no,” Brasidas said, with a tired little smile. Alexios growled. He twisted up, shoving Brasidas against the wall and bracing his weight. Alexios kissed Brasidas with a tenderness he knew Brasidas craved. Felt him squirm and push against Alexios’ shoulders and finally break, trembling as he went pliant. Alexios rolled his hips slowly, angling for the proper spot. Each thrust took him as deeply as he could go. Brasidas buried his mouth against Alexios’ shoulders, his eyes squeezed shut and wet. He refused to bear witness as his God gave him pleasure and ate his soul in return.

“Come,” Alexios commanded. He pressed his laughter against Brasidas as he drove himself deep. Brasidas shivered against him, open-mouthed but silent as he obeyed, his spend soiling them both. Alexios kissed him until Brasidas stopped shaking, then he began again to move.

#

“It’s not too late,” Kassandra told Brasidas. He had known that she was there—a gray owl had been watching him for hours.

Brasidas gave her a polite nod. He stood on the walls of Amphipolis, watching the horizon. On the crate before him was a miniature mock-up of the city and its surrounding terrain, dotted with tiny pebbles. “Isn’t it?” he asked.

Kassandra sat on the edge of the wall, unafraid of the drop. “He’ll never love you. He doesn’t love any of the people he favours.”

“While you do?”

“I do.”

“I see why they usually leave Greece,” Brasidas said lightly, and smiled as Kassandra glowered at him. “Is Kleon yours?”

“He’s Athenian,” Kassandra said.

“That’s not an answer.”

“It means he is and he isn’t,” Kassandra said, cocking her head. “By the way, unlike my brother, I don’t prefer that my favourites die in battle. Statues and posthumous glory mean little to the dead.”

“I’m not too concerned about death. Or about statues.” Brasidas met Kassandra’s eyes levelly. “I know how to defeat Kleon.”

“You will,” Kassandra said, surveying the pieces. “You will do what I would’ve done.”

“And yet you’re here with a warning.”

“Not a warning, no. A reminder.”

“Alexios might not love his favourites,” Brasidas said, with a quick smile, “but humans don’t often choose the people we love.”

Kassandra narrowed her eyes. “It’s a foolish thing, to love a God.”

“Isn’t that what your kind demands?”

“Worship, yes. Love, no.”

“To love is to be a fool,” Brasidas said, “and it is human to be foolish.”

“So be it,” Kassandra said. She smiled tightly as she slipped off her perch. Brasidas watched the gray owl as it flew away towards the setting sun. Only when it was gone did he turn back to the array of pebbles, moving one of the smaller pieces. So be it.