.. | the walls of astyanax | chapter 1
When he was seven, Avicenna's father took him to the Agora.
He was far more used to going to the market in the company of his mother's maidservants as he had since he was a very young child; to go at the side of the man of the house was a whole new experience. He was in quiet awe as he squinted up into the morning sun to see his father's face, only to look away when Philip's lazy dark eyes noticed his scrutiny.
But once they emerged onto the main Via, he forgot his anxiousness in the vibrancy of the main market square. Avicenna played about and tugged on the strong arm that held him constantly in check, exhilarated to be there with his father. He rarely ever saw Philip but for his sporadic trips home from his business and travels, and then only if Avicenna placed himself correctly in their house so as to catch his father's attention.
The Agora was a splendor of colors and activity in a wash of crowded stands with brightly painted canvas flaps and covers. Their owners yelled out their wares to the crowds of people dressed in billowing colored robes of all sorts.
Philip had stopped first at the Painted Stoa to listen for a while to the philosophers debating as they perched there. Sometimes he would laugh at some ridiculous man's claims but then turn and listen with frightening silence to another. Their talk was gibberish to his young son, who clutched close to his father's robes away from those who stared at him. He was not yet old enough to know that it was anything but commonplace for a man of such rank to tote his son around, when there were servants for that very thing.
They came to the craftsmen's workshops when Philip tired of speeches and debates. Rows of stands were thronged with citizens moving about, though most of those buying were servants of rich houses, and it was their clothing that inadvertently revealed their master's status and wealth. His own father's wealth surpassed most of course; no freeman farmer could afford to raise chariot racers, much less buy new breeding stock and bet on his own steeds.
Avicenna, hands clutching bunches of Philip's robes, watched from the protection of his father's side as people milled about, denser now than before. The noise they made with their animated conversations and haggling hurt his ears but soon that too faded into the heavy hum of activity around him.
Chariots and mule-drawn carts raced by, making it dangerous to those unaware and on foot. Philip stopped to watch a healthy looking team, though he had long ago taught his son that no man in his right mind would send his expensive horses here just to get supplies. Avicenna watched the team of two trot along by them. To him they were pretty whites, all trussed up in jangling silver harnesses as they tossed their heads about. Philip tilted his head to the driver as he drove past, but pointed out to Avicenna that they were not true whites.
"Gray muzzles, dark eyes Cenna. You must learn to watch for these things," he said, smiling. Avicenna saw his father smile frequently, though it was somewhat softened by Philip's lazy dark eyes that always had the look as though he had just risen from sleep.
Suddenly, a firm tug had Avicenna trapped against his father's thigh and held there, jerking him out of the busy street as a creaky fruit cart rattled by. Startled, the young boy looked up to find those dark eyes gazing at something from across the busy road. But from his standpoint Avicenna could see nothing but fluttering robes and dust kicked up by both feet and wheels alike.
Philip knelt down on one knee to be more at Avicenna's height. More stares from those who passed at this well-dressed man actually kneeling in the dusty street to speak face to face. But Philip had never been a man who was completely conformed to the conventions of their time. To a point, the boy had already realized this despite his young age, mostly from listening to his mother's long-winded rants about his father's ways. Even Diocles had said that Philip was a man who did what he wanted as well as what was expected and that was all. For it, his young son worshipped him.
His father lifted the slight boy up to lean against his chest while with his free arm he pointed to a loud crowd over across the main market square.
"What do you see?" he asked.
Avicenna leaned close to follow his father's arm and had to squint through the dust stirred by passing chariots. "People," he answered. He looked back at his father. "What are they doing?"
"Auctioning slaves," the man answered. "You are young still but you need to learn the importance of this. No, don't look like that. It's necessary. This is where our servants come from."
Avicenna fixed his eyes back on the auction stage. "Diocles too?"
With a slight smile, Philip shook his head. "No, not Diocles. But Antemion, and Nisos too if I remember right. The rest you haven't met; they work in the fields."
Avicenna chewed over his father's words. "But who are they?"
"Men from various places," his father answered, setting him down and straightening his chiton and cloak. "Prisoners of far away battles mostly. They are captured and some are brought here for trade."
The strong arm tugged him to move on and Avicenna stumbled a bit, straining to catch a last look.
"What about Lysander?" he asked suddenly.
Philip looked down at him, seeming a little surprised. He moved on again.
"You needn't concern yourself with that right now," he said, tired enough of his son's stumbling over his heels that he bent and lifted Avicenna onto his broad shoulders. "Not until much later at least."
"I don't understand," the boy protested, his hands gripping his father's on his knees. He twisted around again, so carelessly this time that he upset his balance and clamped his arms about his father's head to keep from falling backwards. Philip just shook his head free with a small noise of long-enduring patience.
"You will," he said. "For now, listen to Diocles and what he teaches you. But remember what I teach you as well."
Avicenna looked down at Philip, his hand absently touching dark, thick locks of hair that were a bit too long for a man of his stature and age. He was clean-shaven too, something Avicenna's mother always had to comment on when she was angry. There was not much about him that went past her notice when she felt she had been wronged, which was often enough by any measure.
Philip carried his son on his back the entire way home. By the time they reached the outer walls of their home, Avicenna was dozing on his shoulder.
The house was comfortable; not sparse as were most citizens'. Philip had little need of comfort here, however, as he rarely spent any time at home, especially in the summers. Most of his hours were spent outside the city walls, tending to his daily businesses, his stables and his fields.
But in return for his absences he had provided an extensive layout for his son and wife at least, something Avicenna's mother appreciated greatly, though she would never think of expressing it.
Philip handed his son over to his eldest and most favored servant, Diocles, whom he had long ago named as the boy's teacher.
"See that he sleeps through the night," Philip said. "I've kept him out long enough, but you know how he likes to run about."
Cradling the sleeping boy in his arms, Diocles said not a word as he watched the man of the house walk away.
When Philip was gone, the old man looked at the sleeping child.
"Only when you're home," he murmured.
The periods of waiting for the time he could be with his father became routine, once Avicenna became too old to be distracted by childish games. It seemed that he lived his life just waiting for the sound of galloping hooves that signaled Philip's return. Diocles would scold him for being lazy, as did his mother. She would tell him that he shouldn't worship his father as if he were a god, or else the true gods may become jealous and seek to punish him. But she had always been too absent in his life to have much credence over him; he paid her no attention when she felt like being a mother.
So he continued to grow up unchecked, idolizing that tall, dark-haired man and waiting for the day when he would be old enough to go with him on his businesses.
But all was not quite right in the world. As much as Avicenna loved his father, he could equally hate him for one habit Philip seemed to never shake. For a few years now it had been Lysander, a dusky-skinned wretch whose origins were unknown. It didn't matter where Lysander had come from; what mattered what where he was now. In Philip's bed. Soaking up attention like a spoiled cat, earning the resident dog's envy. Though Avicenna had never had a cross word or look from Lysander in his life, he despised the boy merely for his presence and treated him as lesser than the lowliest field wretch.
It was the winter Avicenna turned twelve. The icy gray weather brought the happiest times for him, when cold and ice traditionally meant no racing. Philip would stay at home for as long as several weeks at a time.
Growing tall and lean, Avicenna paced the house, waiting for news. He hadn't seen his father in nearly half a year, one of the longest stretches he could remember. At least he had left Lysander behind, which he could count as a blessing and a curse.
At dusk he knew his father was home. The signal came with the bustling slaves that began running back and forth through the house, shouting to each other in preparation. Avicenna stole out of the main atrium and back to the portico walls; it was important to not be seen here, especially by his mother.
Hidden in the shadows of the columns he waited patiently for the house to quiet again. In the main house he knew the adults would gorge themselves on a rich evening meal and settle back with wine until they eventually went to bed. He had a while to wait he knew, but it was that or risk not seeing his father at all tonight.
So he would wait. He moved into the next wing of the house where his father's chambers lay and positioned himself behind a large column just outside the hallway that led to its very doors. From here he could easily see when Philip retired for the evening. He only prayed that Lysander would not be accompanying him.
It was nearly midnight when the slaves had extinguished the torches throughout the house, and Avicenna caught a tall dim figure cloaked in a white robe moving through the darkness. Alone.
He counted to ten before getting up, discreetly stretching his cramped legs and creeping up to the door. With tentative fingers he pushed, only half wishing it to open. The other half of him hoped that it had been shut properly and would bar his way. The wait was longer than he had expected and the night had grown long. Surely it was too late to be here-
The door didn't make a sound as it opened ever so slightly. Peering into the dark room, Avicenna could just see his father standing in the darkness but for a candle he'd lit near the bedside. Philip had his back to the door and his head slightly bowed, so that his dark curls shifted a bit to reveal the nape of his neck. But when Philip moved from Avicenna's view, the boy dared to push the door a crack wider.
He cringed at the creaking noise that echoed into the room.
"Who's there?" he heard his father say.
Avicenna peeked around the edge of the door and then emerged into the room, only to find his father standing on the other side of the bed. Nude, holding the robe he'd just shed.
"Gios mou?" Philip was genuinely surprised. He even looked amused. "You should be sleeping."
Avicenna leaned against the door so that it shut completely. He shrugged, unable to find a proper response as to why he would be up so late and sneaking around.
Philip smiled and tossed his robe onto a nearby chest. "I didn't see you earlier," he said as he lit another candle. He looked up again at Avicenna and held out his arm. "Have you no greeting for your father then?"
Avicenna made the short distance to the bedside and wrapped Philip's waist in a warm hug, wondering at the feel of bare skin. His father's hand gently stroked his hair.
"Where is Lysander?" Avicenna heard himself ask, his cheek pressed against Philip's ribs. The hand in his hair paused only slightly.
"I'll see him tomorrow perhaps, when he gets back. Why? Do you miss him?"
Avicenna tightened his arms. "No," he said. "I am glad he's gone."
There was a gentle laugh from above his head. "Now why is that, Cenna?" his father asked, moving away to sit down on his bed. Avicenna remained where he was, looking slightly down his father.
"You haven't been fighting with him again have you?"
His son shook his head resolutely. "No," he answered.
Philip raised a thick, dark eyebrow. "Why, then?"
Avicenna shrugged and looked away for a moment, unwilling to explain why exactly he disliked the boy so much. Shyly looking up again, he stepped closer to stand between Philip's knees.
"Are you going to stay for long?" he asked.
Philip gave a thoughtful look. "When the ice clears I must go back to Delphi, you know that. My breeders there have raised some blacks with heavy bones; they'll fetch a good price I think, for drafts anyway." He smiled and ruffled Avicenna's hair. "I might even save one for you."
Avicenna nodded. "A white one?"
"If there is a white," Philip conceded with a nod. "How are your lessons?"
Avicenna rolled his eyes. "I'm bored," he said. "Diocles goes too slow. Do you know how many times we've done The Feast at Nikanor? My lyre is nearly worn to the shell."
Philip took his lyre hand and held it in his own. "Mmm. He likes that one. Used to recite it to you when you were young. You liked it back then."
His hands were warm in the chilly night and Avicenna was distracted by them. "I should know it by heart by now," he mumbled.
Philip smiled and rubbed his hands between his own. "When I go, you will follow as the twilight trails a terin's song; but if I remain, you will depart like winter's fleeting rains upon the sun's breaking rays."
His son watched Philip's gentle eyes, for the first time picking up on his weariness. He shouldn't be here, he should let his father sleep. It was a wonder Philip hadn't sent him out already.
"I think that's how it goes," Philip murmured, turning his son's hand over to inspect the calluses left by his instrument.
Avicenna was looking at the expanse of Philip's bare chest and shoulders, at the contours of bone and muscle. His father didn't have the broad barreled chest and full belly that many men of his age possessed. Instead, he had a slender quality to him, added to by his height and long, graceful features. He didn't know that he had inherited his father's lean stature and features, and that they had already begun to show. And though Philip also lacked such symbols of masculinity as a full beard and short-cropped hair, he was by far the most handsome, virile man Avicenna had ever seen; ever since he had known what such things meant in fact.
Philip was watching him again with that eyebrow raised and his head slightly tilted so that his shaggy hair fell over his eyes. It really was getting long, even for him; he would have to cut it soon. Avicenna reached up to brush it back.
"It's so long now," he said idly. Philip's shoulders lifted with his slight laugh.
"And yours," he said, tugging on Avicenna's hair, almost to his shoulders now. "It's changed color again," he wondered. "You'll be cinnamon, like your mother."
Avicenna let his hand rest on his father's shoulder. His flesh was warm and smooth, just as it looked. Philip noticed the gesture but said nothing about it. Instead, he took a deep, patient breath. He lifted Avicenna's hand off his shoulder and held it again.
"Do you see that jar on the chest? Go get it for me."
Avicenna obeyed, and when he turned around to return to his father, he saw that Philip had stretched out over the bed on his belly and lay with his head propped up on one hand, watching him. With his heart fluttering somewhere in the vicinity of his throat, Avicenna climbed up to sit next to the long body.
Philip's eyelids were half lowered as if he were sleepy. He took the jar from Avicenna and uncorked it.
"This is persimmon oil, Cenna. It's expensive, but there's nothing better after a day of riding." He then took his son's hand and poured out some dark liquid into his palm.
"There," he said, "rub that into my back." When his son just stared blankly at him, he added, "I'm sore and I can't reach the spot."
Avicenna hesitated still, but his father crossed his arms and rested his chin on them expectantly. He looked down at Philip's back, smooth and sculpted from years of hard riding and racing.
He knew his hands were trembling as they tentatively slid from shoulders to lower back in one slow sweep, the heady scent of the balm rising to his nostrils, making him light-headed. He spread the oil as best he could with his shaking, and sweated with the idea that his father could feel it.
But Philip gave no sign if he did. "There's a good boy," he said, his voice a bit muffled by the linens. "It's time you started learning such things anyway."
Avicenna knew he lingered too long on his father's shoulders, but the gentle slope from back to hips to buttocks had him paralyzed to move anywhere else than the safe region of Philip's upper back.
"Lower, Cenna," he heard his father say softly. "It's not my shoulders that hurt. Use your fingers."
Avicenna cringed slightly from fear of displeasing his father when he was being given such a gift. He wondered for a moment, as he slid his hands along Philip's spine, if Lysander ever had such opportunities.
If he did, Avicenna wanted to be better. He pushed harder into the tensed muscle with the pads of his fingers and was rewarded with a soft sigh from his father. Soon he found that some spots were more tense than others, and when he worked those he could elicit another sigh, another deep, appreciative groan from Philip that had strange effects within his body.
He couldn't tell how much time had passed, but he knew it had been a while before he finally rested his tired hands on his father's lower back. The oil had almost dried up and he realized that Philip must have dozed off, since he didn't move when he'd stopped his massage.
Avicenna moved his hands up again slowly, lest he wake his father again, and into rich, dark hair. He had always found some excuse to touch it but now especially, he could not resist. Leaning down to smell it, he detected the sweet aroma of bath salts. Philip had already bathed before coming here.
Philip had his head turned to the side on his arms towards him, but his eyes were safely closed. Avicenna leaned closer, drawn by the scent and by the heat emanating up from his father's neck. He breathed in deeply, determined to get what he could, since this would probably be his only chance ever to be so close again.
When he drew back, he found himself looking right down into open, lazy dark eyes. Philip didn't move but he half smiled, like a father did when humoring his son. But the smile slowly faded as Avicenna continued to gaze down at him, not breaking it as a proper son would in the presence of the man of the house.
He didn't know what god had possessed him. He would never fully be able to explain why, but the moment seemed right to try out what his body had been urging them to do the whole time. He leaned down and kissed his father's lips, as he had done when he was a child. But there was no excuse for such a show of affection now- he was grown enough for the move to be highly improper. And it showed in Philip's face for a split second.
Endless seconds passed it seemed while Avicenna awaited his fate. Philip appeared to be considering him with those lazy eyes, not angry, not even surprised anymore, just... considering. There was no mistaking the gesture; Avicenna couldn't believe he'd done it. His mind was ablaze with the knowledge that he was so close, so close to the man he admired and loved more than anyone in the world. So much so that the connection of father and son melted into that of benefaction and need and Avicenna could no longer tell the difference, nor did he care.
"Why don't you like Lysander, Cenna?" Philip asked softly.
"You love him more than you love me," he blurted out, unsure of his father's reaction.
But Philip simply gave a small smile and raised a hand to brush back his son's hair. "Now, why do you think that?" he asked gently. "Because he sleeps in my bed?"
Avicenna dropped his gaze away from his father's eyes. "Yes," he whispered. The dim room turned upside down as Philip flipped him over without warning, reversing their positions. His weight was warm and heavy. Secure.
"I have worked hard to give you anything you could desire, gios mou," Philip whispered, serious now. Avicenna held his father's gaze, apprehensive and close to tears. Then the sternness was gone, and Philip smiled sadly. "Money to spend, horses, schooling, a beautiful house... and this is all you want from me?"
Tears of shame slipped down his son's face. He was beginning to think that he'd done something wrong. "I'm sorry," he whimpered.
Philip gave a quiet laugh. He smoothed Avicenna's hair back. "Sorry for what, gios mou? Loving me? Never be sorry for that." His thumbs wiped Avicenna's cheeks. "How can I show you that you are dear to me?"
His hand gently stroked Avicenna's hair back with the tenderness of a father to his favorite son. His face was open, honest.
Avicenna gathered his nerve. He hesitantly pointed to his mouth. "Here," he said softly. "Like you do to Lysander-" He could see Philip considering the idea- "Just once," he said quickly when it looked like he would lose his chance.
"Very well," his father said slowly. He ducked his head, touched their lips together. His mouth opened for him as a large hand came up to hold his face gently. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Avicenna realized he was learning yet another lesson. Philip tasted of the wine he had indulged himself in before coming here.
When their lips parted, Avicenna was out of breath. With wide eyes he gazed down into Philip's, questioning and wanting at the same time. He was looking down at Philip in a much different light, though his father gazed up at him the same as he always had, with those lazy eyes that betrayed nothing but a long-enduring patience.
"Are you satisfied, Cenna?" Philip whispered. Around them, the room smelled of persimmon oil that overlaid the crispness of an early dawn.
Avicenna gazed at him for a long time. Lysander, he understood, would not disappear from his father's bed in the future. Philip would not stop from leaving on his travels either. Nothing would change, life would go on. Philip could never give him what he really wanted. Even now Avicenna felt like this had only been a lesson in itself, and that there was little more to expect in the future. It just couldn't be.
"No," he said.
Philip smiled and his eyes lost their hardness at his son's honesty. He stretched an arm out and pulled Avicenna against him. His son complied easily, readily snuggling up against the long, warm body of his father.
"In time, dear boy," he heard his father say, "you will have to learn that what you are given is more than enough."
It would be a long time before Avicenna could understand the meaning of that lesson.
Philip had not been there when Avicenna woke up, but he had somehow expected it. It would never be enough, but he had to content himself with the memory, now permanently stamped into his mind. And though his lesson was not yet fully learned, Avicenna found that the times when Philip was away were strangely easier to handle, but no less lonely.
He still felt sorrow when his father left and still spent his months waiting for Philip's sporadic returns, but he also was content enough with his world, as long as he remained sure in his heart that his father would always come back eventually, no matter how long it took.
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