The worst mistake Kassandra ever made was sleeping with Alkibiades at Aspasia's party.
Especially after she saw the goat.
It's not that the sex was bad. She would have been better off if the sex had been bad. No, the sex was amazing, and that was the problem. It created a need, a weakness, an inability to tell that handsome, conniving face of his "no."
And he knew it. And she knew it. And nothing could be done, it seemed.
She didn't tell him "no" when he asked her to deliver a cast of his genitals to a guard captain, and she didn't tell him "no" when she stole a woman's sex toy, and she didn't tell him "no" when she had to lug the drunken body of a politician halfway across the city just to watch him get stabbed to death. And she didn't tell him "hell no" when he asked her to organize his fucking wedding for him, even if, by then, the realization that she was actually in love with this maláka was punching her in the gut.
And now she's urging her horse faster up the cliffs -- because of course Alkibiades has to live in lavish exile at the top of a fucking mountain -- to stop yet another attempted assassination because some things never change, not even after 20 years.
Except this time . . . this time she might be too late.
Three years after Kassandra took down the Cult for good, Alkibiades managed to con Athens into making him strategos . He probably would have had it sooner if Athens had lifted the age restriction of thirty years. Kassandra, of course, had attended the wild, week-long party Alkibiades had thrown to celebrate, where he draped himself over her shoulders and tried cajoling her to be his permanent bodyguard.
"You know how dangerous politics are," he says, giving her a mournful look. "You've deposed several politicians already."
It's hard to keep hold of the wine cup with Alkibiades hanging on her like a monkey in a tree, but she manages. "So why would you trust me to guard you? "
Alkibiades gasps. "Kassie! I trust you with my life! You wouldn't let anything happen to me."
"It depends on how annoying you've been that day," she says, but he's right. She would kill anyone who touches him.
"But you could have this all the time!" he says, gesturing at the crowd.
"Just the thought alone exhausts me. Allie, I can't handle your lifestyle all the time . I would throw myself off a cliff."
"Yes, I suppose it is rather overwhelming," he says, pulling himself off her and straightening up. "And I would never want to crush your wandering spirit, Kassie. Forgive me for being selfish, but your presence gives me so much joy."
She rolls her eyes, if only to keep Alkibiades from knowing just how much his flattery affects her. It's a secret she will take to the grave, which will be a very, very long time from now.
His gaze turns speculative. "Well, if you won't be my bodyguard, perhaps you could be my spy?"
"Well, that's a step up from errand girl, at least. But I'm not crafty or observant like you. I would probably miss something important."
"That is utter nonsense. You're one of the most terrifyingly capable people I know."
Kassandra smiles into her wine cup.
It has taken her some years, but she's finally learned to tell a real compliment from Alkibiades from a piece of flattery designed to get what he wants. The difference is in the delivery: the more sincere he is, the more careless he sounds, like he's stating the weather or the color of the sky -- an immutable fact.
"What could I possibly find out that you don't already know?" she asks.
Alkibiades helps himself to her wine goblet. "It's all about perspective, Kassie. You're a mercenary, you've been all over the known Greek world, you would have insight that I could not possess based on your experiences. Not to mention your skill in sneaking into forbidden places is unparalleled. The secrets you could steal!"
A calculating expression crosses his face, and she doesn't have to read thoughts to know he's rifling through politicians in his mind whose houses Kassandra could case and ransack right this minute. And, she has to admit, it does sound fun. But a part of her rebels against it.
"What do you say?" He turns to her, grinning, eyes sparkling, and her heart drops.
"I wonder," she says quietly, "if I'm not useful to you, would you bother to still know me?"
The smile slips off his face, and Kassandra wants to slap herself. It must be the wine, pulling the thoughts from her head without permission. She's known for a long time that people are merely tools to him, that he seeks out and flatters those most useful to his plans and discards the rest. His attention for her will only last until he cannot con another favor from her, and then he will move on to the next misthios to fall for his charm.
She knew this and still she developed feelings for him, she's so stupid . But that doesn't mean he has to know how pathetic she is.
She snatches the wine goblet from him and drains the rest of the cup, trying not to notice the careful way Alkibiades is watching her.
Once it's empty she turns to find the wine amphora, but he grips her wrists in his hands.
"Kassandra, look at me," he says and his tone stops her. He has never sounded more serious. He has never looked more serious. "You saved my life . You could do nothing but get fat eating grapes in bed while I cover all of your expenses, and I wouldn't care. You are never getting rid of me."
She studies his face for any of his usual tricks -- he's not above gaining sudden maturity for the sake of an argument -- but finds nothing but fierce resolve. She's afraid to believe in it, but she offers him a cautious smile anyway.
"That sounds like a curse, to be honest," she says, a weak joke.
His lips curl impishly as his eyes rake down over the dress she wears, very similar to the one he first saw her in. "I'll make it worth your while. I always do."
The first time she attended the Olympics, she slept on the Adrestia. It was easier than finding last minute quarters, and she wasn’t willing to pay the outrageous price on what amounted to a mat on the floor when she could have the comfort of her hammock for a small docking fee.
The second time, Alkibiades spoils her with an almost comically lavish suite, complete with a balcony festooned with flowers that overlooks one of the training yards.
“This is too much,” she says, fingers trailing over the gold dipped frame of the bed. “This is ridiculous, actually.”
“Are you implying that you’re not worth such luxury? Because if so, I have several rebuttals.”
She tosses him a look over her shoulder. “That sentiment would be so sweet if I knew you didn’t have a list of competitors you wanted me to sabotage.”
“Kassie!” The mock outrage in his voice all but confirms her suspicions. “As if I need tricks and cheats to aid my victory. I’m perfectly talented all on my own.”
“In some things,” she says, letting her gaze drift near his navel before rising back up to meet his eyes.
He smirks, crookedly. “I think you’ll be surprised at the things I’m skilled at.”
“We’ve been at it so long, Allie, I’m not sure you can surprise me anymore.”
His eyes grow dark and hungry. “Oh, little goat.” His voice deepens in a way that makes her shiver. “I will take great delight in proving you wrong.”
Kassandra swallows, hard, and helps herself to one of the apples sitting in a golden bowl.
“Is your wife attending?” she asks after she has calmed down.
She can feel his eyes on her, and she struggles to keep her expression neutral. They don’t often talk about his wife, and Kassandra likes to pretend she exists only in theory. In fact, she has not heard Alkibiades go into poetic raptures of love since the wedding.
“No, sadly. Long journeys exhaust her, and she has terrible sea sickness.”
“A pity,” she says lightly. “Are you disappointed that she won’t see you compete?”
His gaze turns sharper, as if she were the ocean on a clear day and he could see straight through her. She wanders around the room, inspecting the décor, trying to make herself less like an open scroll.
“You know, jealousy is a rather fetching look for you,” he says.
“I am not jealous!”
Alkibiades grins. “It’s all over your face, darling.”
“It's not jealousy,” she insists, even though lying is futile now. “It’s just – I can’t shake the feeling that it’s wrong to be with you now that you’re married.”
It’s horseshit, really. She’s had flings and one night stands with married people before, though it doesn't happen very often.
He smirks at her. “Delicious, isn’t it?”
She throws a baleful glare his way. “Especially when he claims to love her so much.”
Alkibiades leans against the bed, his arms crossed. “That was years ago. I was young and she was very beautiful. Still is. But infatuation passes, and it’s left us with mutual respect. We have our arrangement, and it works for us, even if it’s not very conventional. You’re just worried about not being my favorite.”
“That is ridiculous,” she says, hoping he doesn’t see her flinch at the truth. “I’m the Eagle Bearer. I’m everyone’s favorite.”
He walks toward her like a lion hemming in its prey. Kassandra meets his gaze evenly, knowing that he’s looking for weakness, any edge he can have over her. It’s instinct for him to break people into their parts to see what he can predict or manipulate. She doesn’t take it personally, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to make it easy for him.
He circles slowly around her, fingers trailing up her arm and across her shoulders, stopping to press his lips against the shell of the ear left exposed by her braid. Her eyes close.
“You have nothing to worry about, misthios ,” he whispers.
He comes back around to face her and tugs on her braid.
“Come, spar with me,” he says, and her eyes fly open. “I need to warm up and you have some . . . frustrations to work through.”
She wonders, on the way to the training yard, how many times she has to throw him onto the ground with her spear at his throat to wipe that smirk off his face.
Alkibiades wins the chariot races, for the glory of Athens, and Kassandra wins the Pankration, for the glory of herself (and Barnabas, who screams until he loses his voice in the stands). They stay up until nearly sunrise, partying with the other champions. The entire time, neither Alkibiades nor his drink ever leave her sight. She learned that the hard way last time.
Even though she refills his cup enough times to be lethal and he stumbles and slurs more as the night passes, he keeps his wits about him. Enough to challenge her to an archery contest just after the sun has risen.
“You want a contest now?” she asks, laughing. “You can barely stand!”
“But I am standing,” he says, pointing at her and lurching a little to the left.
“And what will our wager be?”
It’s only fair to allow him the dignity of picking what happens to him when he inevitably loses.
He throws her a filthy look. “Whoever wins . . . gets to top.”
Of course it's something sexual. Well, Kassandra always likes playing with the olisbos .
“I’ll take that wager,” she says.
He drapes an arm over her shoulder as support as they make their way to one of the practice ranges down the street. Already the smell of fresh bread starts to hang in the air as the bakers begin creating their wares for the day. Though he has stumbled his way around countless times when stupidly drunk, Kassandra likes the feel of his weight against her, and judging from how often he presses his nose against it, he likes the way her hair smells.
Kassandra deposits him on a bench and grabs some practice bows and a handful of arrows from the stand.
“So how do we know who wins?” she asks.
“The closest to three bullseyes is the winner.” He waves at her. “The Lady can start, of course.”
“So gracious,” she mutters as Alkibiades reclines himself onto the bench. With her luck he will be snoring in minutes, and she’s going to have to carry him all the way back to the room.
She toys with the bows, tugging the strings, checking the heft of them. Then she picks one, knocks an arrow back, and lets it fly.
It hits ever so slightly left of the center.
She turns around to glare at him. He’s got his arm draped elegantly over his eyes and is not even watching.
“Not by much,” she says. “That was just me getting my bearings.”
“Do you?” she says sardonically before knocking back the second arrow and setting it loose.
This time it hits just above the target. Kassandra fights down a huff of frustration. A person’s head is a much bigger target than the tiny circle in the middle. And even if she doesn’t hit the head, the neck and the stomach serve just as well. Accuracy only matters so much when it comes to killing. It’s never needed this amount of precision.
“Good shot,” says Alkibiades.
Kassandra takes a deep breath, lines herself up, and shoots the last arrow.
It lands straight in the middle.
She doesn’t stop the smirk that spreads across her face.
“Your turn, Allie. I hope you brought enough olive oil to your rooms.”
“Don’t speak so soon,” he says. “You could anger the gods with that kind of boasting.”
Kassandra snorts. Alkibiades slowly gets to his feet, stumbles over to the second target, and takes the bow Kassandra offers him. In seconds he knocks three arrows and shoots them, one right after the other, and they all three bury themselves in the center target.
“How the fuck --”
She can’t even finish her sentence. Her gaze jumps from the arrows to Alkibiades’ unbearably smug face, uncomprehending of the reality that she’s facing.
“You seem surprised, misthios .”
She gets close to the targets, comparing the placement of his arrows compared to hers, looking for any sign of cheating, even though she watched the whole thing herself. Nothing short of divine intervention would have been able to fool her.
“You’re a spoiled politician!” she cries. “You don’t even know what your meat looks like before it’s cooked, much less hunt it while it’s still alive! How? How?”
“I’m insulted you think I wouldn’t know how to properly aim something long and rigid like an arrow,” he says, dropping the bow and arrow to the ground with a carelessness that makes Kassandra wince. “Not to mention your shock that I could have hidden depths. I’m not just a pretty face, you know.”
“You’re so shitfaced you can barely stand,” she says, crossing her arms. “Even if you had some miraculous talent for shooting, there is that.”
Alkibiades slides his arm around her shoulders, just as much for support as for achieving maximum proximity to his bedroom look (and yes, Kassandra has slept with him often enough that she knows the exact looks he gets in his eyes when he’s ready to fuck).
“Come, Kassie. I have other miracles to show you.”
She sighs and shoulders his weight. “Perhaps after a nap.”
Torchlights from entirely too many men greet Kassandra when she bursts through the gates. Men surround the place, at least ten of them, not counting the two trying to break the door down or however many more surround the back -- overkill for the death of one man, even one as irritating as Alkibiades.
She immediately fires off three arrows in quick succession, taking care of three of the swordsmen, before leaping from her horse before he has a chance to halt. Normally she would take out each person one by one in the shadows, but there is no time for that. Four more men come at her, swords drawn, and she throws herself viciously into the fight. Slashes appear on her arms and side for seconds before sealing themselves back up. The Staff of Hermes means that Kassandra can be as reckless as she wants in battle. It takes no time at all to cut the men down.
She thinks she might actually manage to get Alkibiades out of yet another scrape of his own making when she hears the dull roar of fire.
Smoke pours out of one of the windows, the house already glowing from within. Kassandra's heart leaps into her throat. She runs towards the door, prepared to kick it in, when three more men rush her. A scream of frustration tears from her lungs -- she does not have time for this.
One of the men raises his sword against her -- and drops to the ground, gurgling from his slashed throat. Kassandra jerks her gaze up just in time to see Alkibiades step back, his bloody dagger gripped tightly in hand.
She has never, not once in her life, seen Alkibiades commit violence himself. Through others, definitely. Through herself most assuredly. Yet he looks utterly unfazed.
There is no time for thanks or contemplation -- Kassandra throws herself at the next assassin, always keeping herself between them and Alkibiades. He holds his own shockingly well, but she refuses to take chances. More men come from the back of the house, and Kassandra cuts through them all with a relentless frenzy that would alarm her if she could spare the thought.
When the last man falls dead with her sword in his chest, Kassandra kneels over, shaking hands resting on her knees, to catch her breath. The Staff of Hermes means she never feels exhaustion or hunger, but fear has made her heart feel like it will burst from her chest.
Beside her Alkibiades grins, and she's struck by how beautiful he still is, even in his forties, even covered in blood and soot.
"You really have such impeccable timing, Kassie," he says. "Really, it's uncanny --"
He stops suddenly, the breath leaving him all at once, as an arrow lodges itself in his chest. Kassandra whirls around, gaze seeking desperately for something moving in the shadows, cursing herself for her stupidity -- of course they would have a godsdamn archer --
There . On the roof. Exactly where she would be. It takes seconds to kill him with her own arrow, but it's too late.
Alkibiades falls to his knees, his face pale even in the glow of the blazing house behind them. Kassandra rushes to him, takes him into her arms.
"Allie," she says, voice shaking. "Allie, look at me. It's going to be okay."
It's a bald-faced lie, but his eyes find hers, and they don't look frightened or in pain.
They look annoyed.
She has never prayed to the gods before like she does now, begging on her knees in the dirt, knowing that it's hopeless yet hoping anyway.
Alkibiades raises his hand and presses a bloody thumb against her lips.
Then the light dies from his eyes, and he goes limp in her arms.
She groans as her mother shakes her shoulder. Not only is it entirely too early for this, but her shoulder is still recovering from a mercenary she had killed the day before.
"My lamb, there is a man here asking for you, and I think you had better get to him before your brothers stab him."
Man? What man knows where she lives that her family isn't already acquainted with? Now that she's awake, she can hear the sounds of arguing outside and the lilt of one very familiar, flirtatious tone.
Her eyes snap open, and she jolts up out of bed, wincing at the pain in her shoulder, before running outside.
Alkibiades looks a little too relaxed for someone with two short swords pointed at him. Stentor and Alexios, usually at each other's throats, have forgone their rivalry to be at another's throat together.
"Kassie!" he says brightly, and then his eyes drift down to her legs, more of which are exposed underneath the very short tunic she slept in.
" Kassie!" Stentor repeats, looking scandalized.
"Is there a reason why you're looking at my sister like a dog in heat?" Alexios growls.
"My apologies. For a moment I thought I was looking at the goddess Aphrodite," Alkibiades says.
Kassandra rolls her eyes and shoves her brother aside to get between them and Alkibiades. "Put your swords down, for the gods' sake. He's a friend of mine. Alkibiades, what are you doing here?"
"Alkibiades?!" Stentor shouts, raising his sword. "The Athenian general ? In my house ?!"
"Put your sword down before I choke you with it," she snaps, shoving his arm down before turning to her friend. "He has a point though. You should not be in Sparta. Actually, you should not be in Greece at all. Aren't you supposed to be in Sicily?"
Hesitation flits across his face, and it's not often that Alkibiades doesn't look like he's in full control of any situation he finds himself in.
"Ah, yes. I was recalled back to Athens," he says slowly.
"Did you get lost?" Stentor says acidly.
But Kassandra understands immediately. "The trial," she says. "They found you guilty. Allie, that's a death sentence!"
"Yes, darling, that's why I'm here."
"What trial?" Alexios demands. "Did you kill someone?" He looks almost hopeful at that.
"He broke the phallus off of every Hermai in the city," Kassandra says dryly.
" Allegedly ," says Alkibiades, but Alexios is too busy laughing, the tip of his sword dragging in the dirt, to notice. "I am, of course, innocent, or why else would I have called for an immediate trial before I left? But my rivals sent me to Sicily anyway so they could by themselves time to frame me."
"So what is your plan?" Kassandra asks. "Do you want me to hide you until the fervor calms down? I don't think my house will be quite what you are accustomed to."
"I would never think of encroaching upon your hospitality for so long! I was hoping, since Athens has declined to use my talents over superstition, that I could be useful to Sparta instead."
"So you're betraying your country?" Stentor spats. "And you think we would allow a --"
"Okay!" Kassandra interrupts before this conversation can further devolve into violence. "Allie, let's go for a walk, shall we?" She throws a glare at her two brothers. "Unaccompanied."
Alexios shrugs and heads off, but Stentor looks mildly scandalized at the thought. She can tell by the mulish set of his jaw that he will inform their parents the second she has her back turned. Not that she cares.
"I would love to see the childhood home of the great Eagle Bearer," says Alkibiades, even as she steers him as far from home as she can get before her father returns.
"How did you know where I live?" Kassandra asks as soon as they are out of earshot.
Alkibiades sends her a look that accuses her of naivety. "You really think no one in all of Greece knows the home of the Eagle Bearer and the Wolf of Sparta?"
"The Wolf of Sparta is dead," Kassandra says, mostly out of force of habit.
"Yes, that is the rumor. But you have the favor of kings here, Kassandra. Everyone knows this is your house, even if they are too cautious to do anything with that information."
"Great," she says.
It wasn't a huge secret that she lives here, but at the same time she doesn't like the idea that her home is known throughout all of Greece.
"So what is it you want from me?" she asks.
"Your reputation," he says. "You have connections here. You have influence. I need you to get me an audience with the king. I can do the rest."
"You're really going to betray Athens just like that?" she asks.
It surprises her and even disappoints her a little, even though it means Sparta gets an edge. Despite her roots, she has become fond of Athens during her times spent there.
"They betrayed me first," he says lightly, but his eyes glitter with something decidedly less nonchalant. "If they don't want my expertise, then someone else will. The basis of my trial is just a formality for my execution. They care nothing for the gods."
"I can get you in with the king, but it might take a couple of days," she says.
"Any strain on your hospitality would be much rewarded."
Kassandra thinks back to all of the times Alkibiades let her stay, lavishly, in Perikles' house. Or the suite he commanded at the Olympics. He had never spared her any comfort or expense.
"You're welcome to stay as long as you need,” she says.
The only people who live in the house full time are her mother and Alexios. Though her parents are now comfortable companions, their romance died on Mount Taygetos. Her father travels for work outside of Sparta where there is less chance of recognition, and sometimes he is gone for months. Stentor is married and lives in the city, but he still checks in on mater and helps with whatever she needs. And Alexios . . .
Alexios does not trust himself with society. He wakes up screaming in the night more often than not. The smallest things – smells in the air, mater’s triangular earrings – will send him shaking or screaming or breaking something. Really, if it were up to him he would live like a wild animal in the forests, but mater keeps him occupied at the house. He is slowly branching out, helping the neighboring farm mend fences or plant wheat.
Kassandra gives Alkibiades her bed and curls up with her mother, which he accepts under protest.
“I don’t see why we can’t . . . share our body heat,” he pouts. “We’ve done so many times before.”
“Because my mother is in the same room,” she hisses.
“So? She can join us.”
“And that’s where I draw the line.”
“You need to expand your horizons, Kassie.”
“I have a ship for that.”
That night Alexios has another screaming nightmare. Kassandra jolts out of bed, her fingers tightening instinctively around the hilt of her spear that lies under her pillow. Her mother sits up, and they trade glances, mentally negotiating on who leaves the bed to check on him.
But before they can decide, the sound of humming breaks through the screaming. Both mother and daughter look over at Alexios’s bed to see Alkibiades sitting on the edge of it, singing softly while her brother sighs deeply and runs shaking fingers through his hair.
Listening carefully, Kassandra can pick out enough words to recognize the bawdiness of the song. Eventually Alexios looks up and chuckles. She moves to get up, but her mother’s hand on her arm stills her.
“Do you know another?” Alexios asks, voice hoarse.
“I know many,” says Alkibiades. “Would you like me to sing to you . . . or would you like me to make you sing?”
There is a brief, terrible, and completely idiotic flash of jealousy that flares up in her. Sure, the two of them take other lovers all the time, but that’s her brother for Zeus’s sake! And she’s sitting right here .
But Alexios just laughs. “As tempting as that offer may be, I pass.”
“For now,” Alkibiades purrs.
Her mother lays back down in the bed and gets comfortable, happy to leave the soothing to their house guest. Kassandra lies awake and listens to Alkibiades. She has never heard him sing before, and she’s surprised at how beautiful and soothing his voice sounds. It carries her to sleep.
“That godsdamn maláka! That bastard son of a bitch!”
Kassandra hears Stentor much sooner than she sees him. He’s pacing outside the front door, one hand fisted in his hair, ready to pull it out.
“What did Alexios do now?” she asks, rounding the corner.
Stentor jerks his head up at the sound of her voice, his face twisted in fury. “Oh, it's not him – for once. It’s that maláka friend of yours! The one who would flirt with a tree! Where is he ?”
Kassandra winces because Alkibiades has flirted with a tree, appreciating its long and rigid limbs, albeit as a joke.
“He’s not here. He went into the city for some shopping.”
“ Shopping?” Stentor spats. “Of course he did.”
“What has he done that’s gotten you so worked up?”
“He – he did something to my crops!”
Something in Kassandra goes cold. Though Alkibiades usually expresses his displeasure with barbed sarcasm and backhanded compliments, he’s not above sabotage, especially if he can use someone else for his dirty work. But Stentor has been fretting over the crops on his land for weeks, and more than just his family and hers depends on the yield of the harvest.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Nothing! They’re fucking flourishing ! We’re going to have wheat growing out of our assholes! I don’t know what he did, I don’t know how . I just know that one day he spoke to my workers, and the next day the sickness has gone. And because of that, I owe him.”
Ah. So that’s what angers him.
“Yes, that is a tricky position to be in,” she says.
Stentor points a finger at her. “Tell that bastard I will get him his favor. Between the two of us, he will see the king. After that, if he even looks at me wrong, I will kill him.”
There is so much to do. She needs to wrap the body and take it down to Athens, she needs to procure oil, she needs to alert his wife and children, she needs to find out who contracted the assassination and tear them into pieces --
But the only thing she can do right now is sit in the dirt, press her face against her knees, and sob. She hasn't cried this hard since her mother died. Her chest heaves, she can barely breathe, her fingernails dig into her scalp.
She wanted Alkibiades to die old, in his bed, probably having sex with someone entirely too young for him. Not like this. Not in agony, in the dark. Not in exile.
It's unbearable, this weight of her grief, and this is why she doesn't believe in gods, why she should cut ties with the rest of the world and live in Atlantis, alone and --
"Oh Kassie, darling, are all these tears for me?"
She screams, throwing herself up to her feet, spear already in hand. Alkibiades stands before her, looking rather bemused, and her mind cannot comprehend it. She must have gone mad, she must be hallucinating in her grief --
The man steps closer to her, shaking his head.
"You still have blood on your lips. I suppose that was a bit overly dramatic of me. Here."
He raises his hand and slides his thumb against her lips. It feels deeply, disturbingly real. Kassandra lets out a rather undignified scream and leaps backwards, brandishing her spear in front of her.
"Who are you?! What are you?! What's going on?!"
"Put that spear down, Kassandra, and relax. It's me. Isn't it obvious?"
"Alkibiades is dead," she says, and her voice breaks a little.
Her eyes dart over to his body and --
His body is gone. She rushes over to the place where she left it, but only a bloody arrow remains.
Deep breath, Kassandra. Analyze the situation . She studies the man slowly and carefully, and he seems content to stand and let her.
He looks exactly like Alkibiades, but not the one who died -- the one she met at a wild party in Athens so long ago. Alkibiades in his prime, his face unlined, his chest bare and unblemished.
The only difference is the color of his tunic, which is now gold and glows faintly in the moonlight.
In fact, his entire being glows faintly, and she doesn't think it's the moonlight.
"What," she says slowly, "are you?"
"Come now, Kassie, we both know you're not all muscle. Use that beautiful brain of yours."
There is only one conclusion she can think of, and it's just as ridiculous and unsettling as the rest of this situation.
"You're not . . . immortal?"
He grins at her. "Bravo!"
"No!” She leaps to her feet, stepping away from him. “No, that's not possible. That would make you a god!”
"How can you say that after everything you've experienced? Surely my divinity ranks less surprising than fighting the Minotaur or riddling with the Sphinx? I'm so beautiful, I'm surprised you haven't come to this conclusion earlier."
"How do you know about those things?" she demands.
The man who looks like Alkibiades turns his eyes skyward. "I'm a god, Kassandra. I know everything."
She stares at him. He certainly looks like Alkibiades. He definitely sounds like Alkibiades. If he isn't a god, then the only other alternative is that she's gone completely mad. Out of those two options, the best one is obvious.
"If you're a god, then which one are you?"
"I could tell you, but making you guess seems much more fun."
“Fun? FUN?!” Something in her snaps. “I rode through the night to get to you just so I could watch you die in my arms ! Twenty fucking years I have dropped everything to save your ass over and over again. And you want to play games right now? Are you fucking kidding me?”
God or no god, Kassandra wants to deck him in his smug, pretty face more so than she ever has before.
Instead she stalks off and leaves the flaming wreckage of the house behind her.
Lately Alkibiades has formed an obsession with her hair. He always tugs it out before sex, and he puts it back together afterward. His fingers sift through the strands, carefully plucking out the knots and not so subtly hunting for grey hair that doesn’t exist.
Kassandra lets him because she loves the feeling of his fingers sifting through her hair like it was the finest silk, the softest sand, and because it’s one of the few moments where she can hear him sing. It’s an act of care more intimate than the sex they just had.
“Why do you like me so much?” he asks suddenly.
The question takes her by surprise. He keeps his tone measured and neutral, like asking for her opinion on his outfit.
“Why do you even ask such a stupid question? As if you need to fish for compliments,” she replies.
“I know why everybody else likes me. I’m handsome to look at, and I find ways to get them what they want. It’s a business exchange. That doesn’t explain you. I’ve always wondered what you’re getting out of this.”
Kassandra rolls her eyes. Fifteen years and he’s still trying to look for an angle. “I’m getting excellent sex, for starters.”
“You’re so beautiful, you could get that anywhere,” he says dismissively. “You don’t want for reputation or money. You have allies and friends everywhere you go. You don’t really need me.”
All those points could easily be applied to him, and for a moment Kassandra’s tempted to turn the question back onto him. But the hesitance in his voice stops her. Alkibiades never displays vulnerability unless he’s using it as a manipulation tactic, but there’s nothing to manipulate from her after all this time. Perhaps he’s finally realized, after so many years of treating people like tools, that he is a tool himself for others and his life is empty of any kind of sincere relationship.
Or perhaps he really is shamelessly fishing for compliments. But Kassandra doesn’t want to risk destroying this moment by assuming the worst of him.
“I don’t have to need you to want to be around you.” She wants to turn around and face him, but it’s easier to be open when you don’t have to see the other person’s reaction. “I just want to enjoy your company.”
“Would that still be true if we stopped having sex?”
Suddenly pissed, Kassandra jerks around before he can stop her, and she catches a flash vulnerability on his face before he tries to hide it under indifference.
“ Of course it would! Do you honestly think I only want you for sex? That I don’t care that you’re intelligent and interesting, that you’re kind even when you pretend that you’re not, that you remind me how to have fun and relax, that I don’t have to fight all the time? That’s how friendship works, you fucking maláka .”
The wide-eyed shock that breaks through his mask is both delicious and heart-breaking.
“Well then,” he says, clearing his throat, but the rest of it doesn’t come. Instead he gently turns Kassandra back around, picks up the comb, and continues brushing out her hair. After a moment he begins to hum, low in his throat. And then, a moment later, to sing almost too softly to hear.
“ . . . everyone knows she is brilliant in the rosy-fingered moon at sunset. It outshines the stars, her light shimmers over the deep salt sea as much as fields. She illuminates roses and honey and clover just when they bloom . . .”
Kassandra smiles to herself. Sappho, Alkibiades’ favorite poet.
He braids her hair with slow care, and she closes her eyes.
Growing up, Kassandra never believed in the gods. And after her intense, strange journey of the last twenty years, she’s not sure she’s brave enough to even acknowledge them. It’s tempting to dismiss this as some hallucination or nightmare or cruel trick, but . . . all those years of Barnabas telling every story under the sun about his precious gods, all those inexplicable encounters – the Cult, the monsters, her supposed immorality.
But nothing tops watching your best friend come back to life after he died in your arms, and it’s not something she can put out of her head and move on from.
It’s irrefutable proof, and she can’t ignore it anymore.
But to accept it will destroy everything she ever had with him.
Alkibiades appears beside her like a ghost, his footsteps silent even in the foliage. Away from the torchlight, the warm glow that effuses from him is undeniable. It paints the ground and the branches of the trees overhead like moonlight. If he had not touched her earlier, she would have believed him a wandering spirit. The sea spreads out below her, a dark-wine expanse blacker than the moonless sky above.
He settles down beside her, the white of his chiton unblemished by the dirt.
“I forget how upsetting death can be for mortals,” he says.
She sighs.“Hermes. Tricksy and manipulative.”
It’s an exchange they have shared countless times. He confesses a mistake to express an apology and she changes the subject to express her forgiveness.
He throws her a light smirk. “Though you’ve handled my staff many times, it’s not the one you’re wearing.”
“Dionysus. You love wine and you’re insane.”
“Now you’re just being petty.”
At this point she would usually laugh, but now she can’t even look at him. She closes her eyes against the glow, the irrefutable proof that her dearest friend is something cold and distant and untouchable, that Alkibiades was never real.
The poetry, the singing, Stentor’s mysteriously flourishing crops, the way he always stays up until sunrise. She knows who he is. There’s no point in avoiding it anymore.
She sighs deeply. “Apollo.”
“Bravo, Kassandra. And I didn’t have to give you any hints.”
The slight patronizing tone in his voice makes her lash out.
“I’m just surprised, seeing as how in all the stories, women would rather be trees than have anything to do with you.”
“Not every story about me is true. But . . . even gods can act young and inexperienced.”
“What are you even doing here?” she demands. “Or do all the gods wander the earth with humans?”
“This is not the first life I’ve lived as a mortal. It used to be my father’s favorite punishment. Mortal belief in us has started to wane, and we’ve kept more to ourselves. But not even I could ignore the Cult desecrating the sanctity of my oracle for their pathetic ambitions, so I cast myself down.”
“And did what?” she snapped. “ I took the Cult down. You lived with the Ghost of Kosmos, and you didn’t even know it!”
“I didn’t?” There’s an edge in his light tone, a warning. “I’m the god of prophecy, Kassandra.” His fingers ghost over her chin and turn her gaze to him. His eyes flash. She could count on one hand how many times she has seen him angry. “Do you really think I didn’t See all of this coming to pass? I knew everything about you before you even knocked on that door. I knew everything about you before you took your first breath .”
She swallows against the lump in her throat. She wants to punch him, to gag him, anything to keep his mouth from further destroying two decades of her love for him. They were never equals. They were never two people who didn’t fit into traditional society finding understanding in each other. He was a god and she was his tool.
Kassandra pulls herself from his grasp and stands up.
“Alkibiades is dead and the Cult is long gone,” she says with stiff formality that feels so wrong. “ You have no further use for me, so I will take my leave.”
She gives him no opportunity for a reply before she ducks back through the trees, but Apollo appears before her, blocking the path like a glowing star.
“We’re not finished yet,” he says. “I have something for you.”
A bark of harsh laughter bursts from her. “Of course! Alkibiades always pays me for my services. What will you deign to grant me today? Gold? Horses? A sword? A favor ?” She almost spits the word out.
“Future-sight,” he says, and it drops between them like a stone. “You have a very long life ahead of you. I would hate for you to go about it blindly.”
Kassandra stares at him, stupidly. “That’s . . . that’s not mere payment. That’s the power of the gods.”
“It’s not meant to be payment, Kassandra . It’s a gift.”
She swallows. “If I recall correctly, the last Kassandra who received such a gift was raped and murdered after you cursed her.”
To her shock, Apollo flinches.
“That story has been greatly exaggerated,” he says. “But it’s true that I was young and reckless and I made a grave error in judgment. I thought I could bribe someone to love me. I had it in reverse, but not this time.”
“What does that mean?”
“I already have your love, Kassandra. This is not a bribe. It's a reward.”
Panic sets in her like a busted bee hive. “That’s an arrogant presumption,” she says shakily.
He steps closer to her, and it takes all of her willpower to hold her ground while he circles her slowly. “Oh Kassie, I think after twenty years we can stop pretending you haven’t been madly in love with me. Taking every chance to sleep with me, coming to my rescue over and over again, doing everything I ask of you even when you know I’m deceiving you. Really.” He stops in front of her and cups the side of her face. “Did you think you were subtle?”
For nearly two decades Kassandra has lived in fear of this conversation. Even before she knew of his divinity, she was terrified of giving him such an upper hand. That knowledge would shatter their friendship because either he would use it against her or he would distance himself from her.
Of course, now he has an advantage far greater and more fearsome than unresolved feelings and still he wants to speak so patronizingly.
Kassandra will have none of it. She shoves his hand away.
“I haven’t treated you any differently than you have treated me. You’re the one who asks to sleep with me, you’re the one who calls on me when you’re in trouble, you’re the one who refuses to ask another misthios for your stupid errands, so should I presume that you’re in love with me? ”
He just looks at her with utter exasperation.
“Well, of course you should! I was never trying to be subtle about it. By the gods , Kassandra, you are dense.”
And just like that, she is furious . She doesn't forget that he’s an immortal, all-knowing god.
She just doesn’t care.
“Don’t you dare ,” she yells, shoving him away from her. “Don’t you fucking dare say that to me! I’ve been your pawn and your toy my whole fucking life and it stops -- right now.”
Apollo crosses his arms and cocks his head to the side and just looks at her, with all the calm, serious patience Alkibiades was never capable of displaying.
"You don't think I care for you?"
"The gods don't have attachments. They have playthings. And I’m not stupid enough to fall for it.”
"You've always loved it when I play with you."
"I'm not joking." she grounds out.
"I'm not either." He steps back into her space once more, and the complete and utter lack of fear of her retaliation chills her. This is the only being she has ever met whom she cannot harm or even defend herself against.
"Do you think I offer the gift of future-sight to just anyone? You’ve lain with me for the sheer joy of it. You’ve saved my life because you love me. You’ve done all I ask of you because of a desire to make me happy. You have never bribed me, manipulated me, used me for your own personal gain. Have you any idea how rare that is for me?”
“Even for a god?”
“Especially for a god. You have shown me a devotion others only dream of having with no expectation of reward.”
“That’s the basic concept of love! It’s not an exchange. Which is clearly a concept you don’t understand.”
“And how would you know that? All these years you have kept your feelings to yourself and in doing so denied me any opportunity to prove myself.”
“That’s --” she stops abruptly as she realizes that he has a point. She’s the one who kept their relationship in the safe harbor of friendship, while her feelings raged in the depths below. There had been moments when she saw something soft and vulnerable in him, and she had gently but firmly put it to rest rather than explore it.
“What do you want from me, Kassandra?” He looks at her with pain, with resignation, with fragile hope, and what if it’s real? What if her caution all these years has done his character a disservice? “Anything you want, I will give it to you. Tell me how to convince you, and I’ll do it.”
If only she could give him an answer. If only he could give her a way to lay bare his thoughts as if she were reading a scroll. Not even gods could have such power, but he has offered knowledge of a different sort and perhaps . . . perhaps it will be equally revealing.
“It’s something I’ll have to see for myself,” she says.
His immediate understanding comes as a sharp intake of breath.
“Are you sure?” he asks. “This cannot be undone.”
“When have you ever seen me back down from anything?”
He gives her a smile so painfully fond that it hits her like a knife in the ribs. “Never.”
She holds still as he slowly lifts his hands up to her face, his thumbs brushing just beneath her eyes. They flutter closed, and it’s like a flash, like staring into the sun, bright and hot and full --
And then the universe opens up.
“What do you See?” he whispers.
Everything. She Sees everything. She sees Greece crumble and rebuild itself a hundred times over. She sees death and love, rises and falls, war and peace.
And she sees him, dressed in strange clothes in stranger places, dancing in streets, lounging naked in beds, eating and laughing and yelling, but always there, waiting for her.
She opens her eyes, looks past the godly aura, the timeless youth of his body, the uncharacteristically somber expression on his face, and finds hope.
“I See you.”
Apollo slips his hands down to cradle her jaw and presses his forehead against hers.
“I have Seen you for centuries,” he says.
They stand like that for a long time, breathing in each other's existence, impervious to the world around them.
It's okay. They have the time.
In all the stories, no one talks about what happens to the hero at the end of the adventure. No one tells the story about the hero who wants to punch their step-brother in the face if he makes one more snide remark or the hero who would rather sleep on the Adrestia than listen to her father’s snoring, or who has a hard time swallowing down some of her mother’s cooking.
None of the stories ever talk about how hard it is to adjust to normalcy, how it chafes around her like ill-fitting armor.
So when she receives the word about Alkibiades’ celebration, she flees to Athens immediately, even though he warned her that that annoying bastard Aristophanes is attending.
Like flies, Kassandra watches the other partiers pass out on the cushions and couches and even the floor in the kitchens, until only her and Alkibiades remain.
Despite all his innuendos, the copious amounts of wine from the party end up being too much for either of them. They lay together on the balcony on the roof, backs resting against the parapet, feet splayed out before them, and snack on the leftover figs and cheese. Their conversation meanders drunkenly from one topic to the next, from old memories to stupid questions that send them into giggling fits.
(He accidentally spills some of the olive oil from the dipping bowl and looks at her, dead serious, and says "I likes to be oiled" and Kassandra screams with laughter.)
Their words grow softer and softer until eventually they both nod off, Alkibiades's head pillowed on her shoulders.
When Kassandra stirs, there is a crick in her neck and an empty spot next to her. The torches have all sputtered out. She squints around and finds him leaning against the railing, looking out over the grey-tinged horizon.
"Go back to sleep, Kassie," he says softly.
"What about you?"
"I'm watching the sun rise. Don't worry, you won't miss my company for long."
Kassandra scoots down into the pallet and covers herself with the blankets. Gods, her neck is killing her. She will undoubtedly con a massage out of him later, but for now she is content to lay on her side and watch him through eyes still heavy with sleep.
Hidden beneath so many layers of the flirting and the innuendos and the sarcasm and the constant, constant scheming, there is a substance to Alkibiades. A heavy, soft weight in him. Sometimes, in these rare, unguarded moments, he feels old in the way Kassandra feels old. The kind of old that comes from cramming so much life in so little time.
The sky brightens with the sun, turning grey as ash to blush to crimson.. Rosy-fingered Dawn , she thinks sleepily, hearing Barnabas's voice as he retells the story of Odysseus. And then, when the sun finally peeks over the horizon, it washes the world in golden light, and she could swear that Alkibiades glowed with it, an otherworldly light that effused from his skin.
But then she blinks and it's gone, and she knew it must have been a trick of the light.