“What did the physicians say?”
Alexios knocked back his drink right after asking to hide whatever trace of guilt might have touched his expression. He knew Brasidas well enough by now to understand that he would want to reassure him, and if there was anything Alexios did not need to hear, it was Brasidas trying to make him feel better about the fact that Brasidas had been run through with a spear by Alexios’ sister.
Brasidas raised his hand to touch the ugly, twisted, half-healed scar that travelled from his right shoulder up almost to his jawline.
“It’s better. I probably won’t be holding a sword anytime soon, or ever, but I may at least regain full use of my arm.”
Alexios gave a slow nod. Barnabas had once told him that some gods must surely have it out for him, but in truth, Alexios considered himself extraordinarily lucky, circumstances being what they were. Had he loved someone a little less understanding than Brasidas – not unreasonably so, even –, they may well have demanded that Alexios chose between them and the sibling that had gored them twice, once only to hit Alexios where it hurt. But Brasidas had accepted that Alexios still wanted his sister to have her chance at redemption. He had his family, he had his lover, he was home. No, if anything, someone was looking out for him, even if nothing in his life had exactly come easy.
Of course, all was not sunshine now. “The cult turned Kassandra into what she is. We’ll see what she makes out of life now that she has control over it. I hope she can leave her past behind, but you’ll have to face the idea that it may be too late for her,” Brasidas had told Alexios once, still laid up in bed, his arm dead by his side. Alexios worried about that, too. However, so far, Kassandra didn’t seem tempted by the darkest path. She was demanding and brutal and conceited, but she was not wholly without reason, and in the cult and its offshoots and branches, she had enough deserving targets to assuage her blood lust. Brasidas avoided her regardless, but that Alexios could not blame him for. Perhaps, in time, he could bring them together again, but he had no plans on pushing it.
“Well, you have me to carry all your burdens. It’s the least I can do,” he said with a grin and placed the wooden tankard down. “On that note, want me to fetch you another drink?”
They had seated themselves on a low stone wall at the edge of the crowd celebrating Athena and Ares for a victory in Malis. Lively melodies of pan flute, lyre and kithara threaded through laughter and shouting. Fires burned in huge braziers. He’d never been to a feast in Sparta in his adult life, though he’d spent weeks here now to aid Brasidas on his recovery, and it was strange to see the austere atmosphere of the ever martial city crack for once as men and women alike danced and drank under the bright stars of a warm summer night. He glanced to his side again at Brasidas, who, in the soft twilight of the flickering flames, looked handsome enough to break any heart. Even after all these years, Alexios still sometimes felt like a lovestruck boy in front of him.
“In a moment,” Brasidas said. “There is something I wanted to speak to you about.”
Alexios cocked his head and watched as Brasidas reached behind the wall they sat on and grabbed his shield. When he had met up with him earlier this evening, Alexios had noticed him carrying it, but hadn’t known why. Perhaps the physicians had instructed Brasidas to lift some weight on his back, start back up with training so his muscles wouldn’t weaken. He doubted they allowed the sick to recover slowly in Sparta. However, the two of them had lost themselves in conversation before Alexios had had a chance to ask.
Brasidas handed him the large round aspis. The red and gold on it gleamed in the firelight as if it had just been polished, and he could see a reflection of their faces in the shiny black front.
“I’m sure I had some speech,” Brasidas said, smiling, almost apologetic. “But I doubt I could-”
A voice called from out of the throng of people. Brasidas frowned in its direction, but turned his attention back on Alexios quickly. Alexios simply stared at at him, holding on to the shield with growing confusion, waiting for Brasidas to continue his explanation.
There was an unreadable flicker in Brasidas’ eyes. He glanced away. “Well… you want to take your time, I understand,” he said. “It seems I am needed.”
With that, he left Alexios sitting with the shield.
They did not meet again that evening, for Brasidas was kept busy by some men Alexios knew vaguely to be of his syssitia, and since he did not wish to disturb them, he found himself carrying his shield home, still no less puzzled than before. With his father and mother both out of town on their own errands, only Kassandra was around when he returned home. She watched him sitting at the table with the shield while shoving a piece of bread in her mouth.
“Are you learning to fight with that?” she asked. “I thought you liked daggers best? Will you really be lugging around a shield that slows you down?”
“I think maybe Brasidas wants me to learn how to?” he said uncertainly.
“Well, it didn’t help him,” she muttered, grabbing her sword that laid on the table.
Alexios glowered at his sister as she strode out of the room. Truthfully, though, he also couldn’t see Brasidas trying to push him into a hoplite line. What would be the point of him carrying a heavy shield into battle when he didn’t even have someone next to him who could benefit from its broad size, and no fellow soldier who covered Alexios with his shield in turn? There had to be something else to this.
The most logical thing to do would have been to ask Brasidas himself, obviously, but it was surprisingly difficult to get a hold of the man sometimes. Even though he probably wouldn’t be leading any armies from the front anymore, his experience and advice were still highly sought after. Brasidas’ servant girl told Alexios that the gerousia had already sent a messenger to fetch him when Alexios got to his home the morning after the feast, and that he wouldn’t be back until the evening.
As he was already at his house, Alexios opted for leaving the herbs he’d collected for him on the table, at least. Since being back in Sparta, he got up early twice a week to pick fresh burdock, as the plant, crushed up into a pulp, helped Brasidas with the aches of his healing wounds.
Afterward, what should have been a quick task to return a bolted horse turned into him cleaning up a whole bandit hide-out, and after he’d washed the blood of the kettle thieves off in the Eurotas it was much too late to go bother Brasidas. The shield was probably a gift of some sort, Alexios had figured, by this point. After all, the truth was that Brasidas would likely never use an aspis for its intended purpose again. If he opted to fight, if he even could, it would likely not be in a phalanx and he’d wear a smaller shield, easier to wield and only intended to protect himself. Alexios might not need a hoplite shield, either, but it was a sweet gesture nonetheless. He knew how much these things were worth to Spartan warriors, after all. Still, he could not get the expectant way Brasidas had looked at him when he’d left him that night out of his head.
The next day, Alexios finally did meet Brasidas, who was just climbing off his horse’s back before the king’s assembly hall. The movement looked clumsy and painful still, with the way his arm would not twist back fully.
“Good morning,” Alexios greeted, frowning as he offered Brasidas his hand to get down a little easier. He never enjoyed seeing him in pain, though Brasidas so carefully kept any twinge of discomfort off his face.
Brasidas straightened in surprise at the sound of his voice. He ignored the hand offered as he clambered down.
“Good morning,” he murmured.
“Are you alright? Is the injury acting up again? Or are you expecting trouble in there?”
Alexios pointed his thumb at the building.
“No.” To his surprise, Brasidas sounded markedly curt. “None of that. I’m fine.”
They stood in uncomfortable silence for a moment, one Alexios did not understand at all. He wished he could have reached out and pulled Brasidas’ forehead against his own, said something silly or flirtatious to make him smile, as he usually did in those rare moments when it seemed like Brasidas withdrew too far into his own head. However, the high and mighty of Sparta were swarming them on all sides and when Alexios finally opened his mouth, Brasidas had already turned away.
“I should get going.”
As he watched Brasidas retreat, Alexios realised he’d forgotten to ask about the shield, but for some reason he could not fathom it seemed like there were much bigger problems now.
“I didn’t expect you tonight.”
Alexios stepped out of Stentor’s way.
“I’m just here to pick up a letter for polemarch Drakon. Our father said he left it here for him and that I should deliver it when he returns.”
As he spoke, Stentor stepped up to a shelf and moved a small stone statue, pulling out a folded piece of paper from behind it. Sometimes, it was still odd for Alexios to see Stentor move in this house. It was his family’s home in his mind, the one he remembered from childhood, and Stentor hadn’t been there for that. The fact that a man he’d only met when they were both grown went through the building with the same blind familiarity as himself was something to get used to.
“Whose shield is that? Are you looking to join the Spartan army?”
Stentor’s words, dripping with sarcasm, tore him from his thoughts. He looked at Brasidas aspis, which leaned against the wall under a window by the stairs.
“Brasidas gave it to me.”
“Yes. Told me to ‘take my time’,” Alexios said. He hadn’t really gotten to talk to anyone about the odd interaction. “I just thought I’d bring it to my room before I visit him tonight.”
Stentor clasped his hands at the small of his back. “So congratulations are in order?”
“Oh.” He hesitated. “But then shouldn’t you take the shield with you?”
“Why should I?”
Stentor looked honestly a bit taken aback now, possibly for the first time since Alexios had met him, whereas Alexios felt like he had completely lost the thread of the conversation.
“You are going to make him walk back here and get it himself? If you don’t want it, fine, but what has Brasidas done to you to deserve that? I always figured him an upstanding man...”
“What in the gods’ name are you talking about?” Alexios asked.
Stentor regarded him for a long moment.
“Do you know why he gave you that shield?” he asked slowly, as if speaking to one touched in the head.
Alexios crossed his arms over his chest. “I have no idea. How would you know?”
“It’s a marriage proposal, you moron.”
For a moment, Alexios thought his heart had stopped.
“Marriage?” he repeated.
“It’s a Spartan custom for marriage between two men, reflecting the bond between soldiers. The suitor gives his shield to his chosen partner and, if he’s accepted, gets it back on the wedding night – or right away, if the suitor doesn’t want him. Sometimes, a man might beg a few hours’ time to consider the offer or ask his family’s blessing, of course, and he’ll take the shield to prove to them the proposal is valid and made in good faith…” He raised a brow. “How long have you had that?”
Way too damned long.
“Two days,” Alexios muttered. “Are you fucking serious? I swear to the gods, Stentor, if this is a joke…”
“Walk out of this house and ask any other Spartan on the street. They’ll tell you the same thing.” Stentor shrugged. “There are some variations, of course. My husband gave his shield to my father, but then, that marriage was arranged, and you hold to older traditions in those cases. It’s perfectly normal to propose directly to the man you wish to marry these days if he is also a free Spartan.”
“You’re married?” Alexios said, numbly, because he could hardly process any more information than what he’d already been served with, and parroting Stentor’s words back at him was the easiest thing to do now.
Stentor rolled his eyes.
“Eight years. Why did you think I didn’t fight you for this house back in the day? I’m living with my husband.” He glanced back at the shield. “You may want to focus on this now. At least give it back to him, for the gods’ sake. You keeping it hostage here must have been embarrassing enough.”
“Who said I don’t want it?”
But other than that, Stentor was right. Alexios all but flew out of the front door.
A horse only slowed you down in the press of Sparta’s cramped inner city. Fifteen minutes later Alexios found himself standing before Brasidas’ door, panting and covered in dust that he’d kicked up running all the way. There on the doorstep, he tried to compose himself for a moment, but only just enough to breathe again. Every wasted minute was one more Brasidas could use to decide that he would ask for that shield back.
He opened the door slowly and walked through the front room into the back and up the stairs. Brasidas liked to retire to the rooftop of his tall, three-story house in the evenings, and indeed Alexios found him sitting there on a thin blanket, looking out towards the Taygetus range, which bordered Sparta like a wall. Alexios’ footsteps on the stone steps alerted him before Alexios could speak.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I thought I was your lover. Can’t I come over for the night?” Alexios asked, in an attempt to soften the mood.
“Yes, of course,” Brasidas answered carefully. There was a strange mix of pain and relief in his eyes.
It hurt in a sweet way to realise that Brasidas might still have considered staying with him if Alexios had rejected his proposal.
Alexios got down on his knees by Brasidas’ side. He’d already dragged this out too long.
“And I’d like to be your husband, too, if you’ll still take me after all this. But,” he grabbed Brasidas by his good shoulder, voice a little pleading, “the next time you choose a Spartan custom for a question as important as this, have pity on me and give me a quick reminder. Stentor just now explained to me that you’d proposed.”
Brasidas stared at him in blank-faced disbelief.
“You didn’t know?”
“No, but I do now, and I want it.”
The shock lingered on Brasidas expression, but was finally chased away by a sudden burst of laughter.
“Gods, I should have my nephew and his friends over my knee for pulling me away from you at the feast!” He shook his head. “But it was my fault. I saw the way you looked at me... you seemed so baffled, and I figured you might need a little time to consider, or to think of a gentle way to let me down. I did not want to put you on the spot.”
Alexios felt the vice around his heart loosen. He dragged the hand on Brasidas’ shoulder up to his face and pulled him into a kiss, which was returned.
“I was just confused why you’d hand me your shield,” Alexios said, and now that he found Brasidas turning into him, gentle and warm, the stiffness of the last days forgotten, he was suddenly laughing as well. “Why didn’t you ask me when we met again? Do you really think I’d keep you waiting for the fun of it? After – what, five, six years? Am I that heartless?”
Brasidas smiled ruefully. “I did think it quite unusual, but I suppose I had a suspicion.”
“What sort?” Alexios asked, sitting back.
“When I found the herbs on my table as I returned last evening, with no note or anything else indicating your decision, I wondered if I had mistaken pity for love. The way you looked at me as I struggled with my horse today seemed to say the same thing.” He hesitated. “Perhaps it really is selfish of me, either way. You are ten years younger and could easily find yourself a husband who will fight by your side – and I can’t promise that will be me again. But just because your sister is the reason for that, I do not want you to think me your responsibility. I can fend for myself well enough.”
“You’re mad,” Alexios said, heatedly, and kissed Brasidas on the mouth again, thumb stroking over the bristling curls of his beard. However, he could understand where these doubts came from. In truth, what would he do with himself if his body would not work anymore, if he couldn’t fight? He could only hope that he had as many other qualities as Brasidas did.
“I don’t care if they cut off your arm entirely,” Alexios clarified. “The only concern I have is that you won’t have any time for me if you don’t leave Sparta anymore, since everyone from king to soldier here seems to want your attention. I’m going to have to fight hard to get my husband for myself every once in a while!”
Brasidas smiled, brushing his knuckles against Alexios’ cheek.
“Thank you,” he said sternly. “I know I should not have doubted you like that.”
“No, and you should give yourself a little more time, too. Six weeks recovering from being speared like meat on a skewer and you think you should be jumping around?” Alexios teased, but he could feel his own smile failing already. “Had you turned the other way, or taken half a step forward, that spear might have gone straight through your skull, you know? You don’t seem to understand how glad I am that you’re alive.”
He heard the cold fear in his own voice when he spoke, which he’d always attempted to hide from Brasidas, for he must have enough sorrows of his own. Wordlessly, Brasidas wrapped him in his arms and Alexios yanked him into a deep, desperate kiss.
“Any other Spartan wedding customs I should know about before I ruin your mood for another couple of days?” Alexios said, when he leaned back.
“Well, there is the wedding night kidnapping, and as the older one, that would be my duty. Of course, that’ll be a bit difficult now.”
“Ah, I’ll come if you ask nicely,” Alexios said with a grin. “We’ll just re-enact it later.”
Gently, Brasidas ran his fingers down Alexios’ back.
“As my betrothed, you’ll also be expected to come to a supper at my syssition.”
“Sure.” Alexios hesitated and added, a little sheepish: “But I don’t have to come every day, do I?”
Spartan he might be, but the nightly get-togethers had always seemed like a bothersome duty to him. He was happy the kings had neglected to task him with finding a syssition and if marrying Brasidas would forcibly elect him into one of those assemblies of Spartan men he would bear it for the sake of the much greater reward that was being his husband, but he wouldn’t exactly look forward to it.
Brasidas grinned in a way that showed he knew exactly how much Alexios dreaded the prospect, drawing the moment out a little. “I will endeavour to make excuses for my wild mercenary husband,” he said, finally, looping strands of Alexios’ hair around his fingers.
“I’ll make it up to you,” he promised, as he pushed Brasidas down on the blanket.
The hall in which Brasidas’ syssition met was right at the bank of the Eurotas. Alexios could hear the river sputtering and splashing before the windows after the heavy rainfall in the afternoon as he sat by Brasidas’ side, scanning the other men around the tables. Many quickly dropped their gazes in the hopes that their furtive glances went unnoticed whenever Alexios looked their way. He could felt the opinion around him was shifting like leaves in the wind from one minute, one conversation to the next. Brasidas’ approval obviously counted for much, but on the other hand, Alexios was a mercenary whose Spartan citizenship was more than dubious. He was Nikolaos’ son and a descendant of Leonidas, but he had been sentenced to death to appease the gods and returned instead. It was actually quite entertaining to watch them debate among themselves trying to come to a consensus.
“Do you think you’ll be allowed to marry me?” Alexios whispered to Brasidas, grinning.
“Thankfully, being in the same syssition does not grant them a vote, just the right to give me a stern talking-to,” Brasidas answered quietly, filling Alexios’ goblet again.
Alexios sipped at it and cast his gaze around the room once more. Stentor was beset by four men no doubt questioning him about his brother, considering the scowl he gave Alexios. Alexios just smirked at him. The fact that he didn’t plan on showing up here often should be a relief to Stentor.
“I didn’t know Stentor was in your syssitios.” He sipped his wine, remembering a question that had retreated for the last couple of days while his own impending marriage occupied all of his thoughts. “Who is he married to?”
“You probably don’t know him. He’s a naval general, Lysander,” Brasidas answered.
Alexios had a sudden flashback to himself stooping over a slain Athenian polemarch, digging awkwardly through his underclothes for that damned seal as steps outside the tent grew closer.
“We’ve met a few times,” he muttered.
“A ferocious man, isn’t he?” Brasidas said diplomatically.
“No kidding.” Not to mention loudly critical of the Spartan elite that Stentor had been adopted into, and that man wasn’t a lamb, either. “How did these two not kill each other?”
“Funny you should ask. When you told me Stentor had taught you about the meaning of the shields, I remembered that a few weeks after his own wedding, he had to get his aspis fixed because Lysander had kicked a dent into it. That was certainly symbolism of a kind. So for a while, I wondered the same.”
“Do I need to help him?” Alexios asked, raising a brow.
“I don’t think so. It seems they came to a truce years ago and for as much as Lysander still barks about overthrowing people, he’s a loyal general.” Brasidas leaned his head to the side. “That was King Archidamos’ plan, I’m sure. Lysander was too talented to throw into prison for treason, so Stentor is the leash he put on him. Archidamos was always good at arranging marriages that benefit the state.”
Alexios wondered if Nikolaos had guessed as much when he’d accepted Lysander’s shield for his son, or whether knowing he was probably throwing Stentor into a loveless and contentious marriage would have even stopped him, considering the king had ordered it. Had he already started to regret what he’d done to Alexios and Kassandra then, or had he still doubled down on his iron-clad idea of duty for all these years? He’d had the gall to tell Alexios that he had to accept what had happened when they had met again, but he’d faltered fast, so had he truly believed it? It was difficult to gauge his father now, even after all this time.
Alexios shook the thought off. He wanted to look forward, not back, and in his future laid some great things, despite the wounds of the past.
“I didn’t notice before since I only ever saw you out in the field, but you seem to have quite a bit of insight into Spartan politics,” Alexios noted. “The ephors and gerousia call on you a lot.”
“I only know as much as is necessary. Which, I admit, can be quite a bit if you work as a spy and become aware of greater forces threatening Sparta from inside. I used to only pay attention to the war, but I realised a long while ago that you need to keep an eye on the people who are giving your orders, too.” He smiled. “Also, men attending their syssitia tend to gossip more than washerwomen.”
Alexios laughed, taking another sip of his drink. It had already occurred to him that if he married Brasidas, he would probably be spending a lot more time in Sparta. His life had been too wild and both of them at the brink of death too often to simply leave his husband for months at a time without a good reason, and he hadn’t brought his family back together to never see them again, either. Sparta would be his home like Kephallonia used to be, a place where he walked down the street and people greeted him by name. He hadn’t had that in a decade.
“You’ll have to teach me everything. All the people I have to know and avoid and the ones I can’t embarrass you in front of…” Alexios brushed his hand against Brasidas’ thigh. “Might have been easier if you’d just picked someone from around here. They probably would have understood the proposal, too.”
“Sadly, there’s no man who even comes close to you in all of Sparta.”
Alexios drained his wine and wondered if he could kiss Brasidas in front of his whole syssitios. Probably not fully in line with Spartan manners. He did place a quick peck on his cheek when Brasidas turned to him to whisper something, though. Alexios was, after all, not quite a regular Spartan.