.. | the walls of astyanax | chapter 8
Avicenna thought the Spartan was being unusually quiet with him that morning. Or could it be afternoon already? Indeed, Achatës had let him sleep very late into the day, and then only waking him to eat what midday meal had been laid out for the house. Achatës had been up and dressed already when he'd shaken Avicenna awake.
As he sat chewing, Avicenna eyed his traveling companion, who sat across from him conversing with Phegeus. Did this silence and his avoiding eye contact mean that he was repentant for what liberty he'd taken last night at the bath? Were they never to speak of it again? He hoped so.
Avicenna felt better this morning that he had the night before; rested and finally somewhat collected in his head. He'd miraculously slept better than he had expected to.
"Only a day? Must you leave already?" Phegeus was saying. Avicenna looked up at Achatës.
"We've some people to meet later on," Achatës said. "And a long way to go I'm afraid."
Phegeus looked at Avicenna. "A shame," he said, "for you to go back on rations and a hard ground to sleep on. Still, nice to be kept warm, eh?"
Avicenna blushed furiously and looked away as Achatës laughed outright.
"No, no, he's no lover of mine," Achatës corrected good-naturedly. "Just traveling together."
"Oh? Heading home are you?" Phegeus asked Avicenna.
The Athenian's head shot up. "Certainly not."
"He's from Megara," Achatës interjected quickly.
Phegeus continued looking at Avicenna for a few moments longer and finally stood up. "Well if you're to leave tomorrow then I'll make sure to have your beasts packed and ready by sunrise." He gave a polite nod of his head and exited.
As they left the dining room, Avicenna caught the sense that Achatës was annoyed with him. He hurried to catch up.
"Megara?" he demanded. "Why lie to him?"
Achatës gave him a thoughtful look. "Because if I'd told him where you are really from he'd have thrown you out on the street."
Avicenna stopped in his tracks. "But why?"
Achatës stood and looked at him with a truly amazed look on his face. "You're not the only one with prejudices, Cenna," he said after a moment.
Avicenna stood in the hallway and watched Achatës walk away, chewing on what the Spartan had said.
Achatës went back into the room they had shared the night before to gather some of his things. He was a bit angry and amazed at the same time at how someone could be so unaware of everything around him. Did Avicenna truly believe that Athens was the center of the universe?
If it was so, then that made Achatës' work that much harder, since the Spartan had already decided that he would break through that shell, or at least find out why it had been built in the first place.
Achatës paused for a moment in changing clothes. He looked out of the small window of the room as he thought.
And why? Why try to disturb the comfortable outlook on life that Avicenna had developed, however wrong it was? Simply because it was there? Achatës sighed and ran the fingers of both hands back through his thick hair. Or was it because in some ways Avicenna reminded him of himself when he was younger? That stubbornness and pride had often made as many enemies for Achatës as his looks and oft-lamented charm had made lovers.
Doubtless it had nothing to do with the fact that Avicenna was a handsome boy. No, his attraction was of course in no way led by the boy's dark reddish hair, chiseled, almost adult-hardened features, and the slender yet toned physique of someone who had yet to grow into a man's build. Not to mention his odd, rare green eyes.
Achatës stared blankly out of the window, not even registering the people and carts that passed below, or even that he had neglected to put some clothing on yet. He was content simply to remain where he was, pondering on Avicenna's beauty, which had not been evident when they first met in that filthy cell. True, neither of them had been at their best.
The Spartan closed his eyes and pushed his hair back again.
"Bad luck," he muttered out loud to himself. He pulled on a fresh robe, tied it securely and sat on the bed to tie his sandals.
"What was bad luck?"
Achatës looked up to see Avicenna leaning in the doorway, arms crossed and looking like he'd been there for at least a few moments.
"Nothing," Achatës answered, going back to his shoes and away from how Avicenna's robe split to reveal his upper thigh because of the way the boy was standing. "Are you ready?"
"I thought we weren't leaving until tomorrow." Avicenna watched him cross the room to their saddlebags.
"We're not, I just want to make sure we can leave early." Achatës folded the top flap over and stood straight again. They stared at each other for several awkward moments before Avicenna cleared his throat and spoke up.
"Phegeus says there's a pit and track not far from here. I wanted to go have a look."
Achatës raised his eyebrows. "I didn't know you had any interest in trials."
"I want to see if they are racing." Avicenna cocked his head in the direction of the street. "Want to go?"
They found the small stadium with little difficulty and even less conversation. Avicenna as usual felt no urge to say anything, but it seemed to him that the Spartan was uncomfortable with the silence for some reason. There were many people milling about when they passed the main walls.
"Some kind of competition?" Achatës remarked as they were ushered to sit with the crowds. "But no chariots from what I can see."
Disappointed, Avicenna strained to see what was going on inside the ring. It was wrestling. In the middle of the ascending stands there was a designated ring inside of which two burly men grappled with all their might, as if their very lives depended on it.
Avicenna almost cringed at the grunts and howls they made, but was too amazed at the sight of such an animalian sport to tear his eyes away. He had heard of such games but never seen them.
Achatës was entranced. "I'd forgotten that the Pythian Games were coming up," he commented.
Avicenna looked at him. "The what?"
"Pythian Games," Achatës repeated. "They're held every four years at Delphi. Have you never seen them? Come on, let's get a closer look!" He grabbed Avicenna's arm and pulled him from his seat. He used his size to politely shove his way to the front rail where they were close enough to see the sweat glistening.
"Do they always wrestle naked?" Avicenna whispered.
Achatës nodded. "Of course. Why give the unfair advantage of clothing to grab onto?"
Avicenna didn't answer. The two men, bearded and strapped with muscle, had been oiled down and were having a hard time holding on to one-another. Finally the larger man managed to get a hold on both his opponents' hands and use his weight to bring him to his knees and double over, finally forcing his shoulder into the sand and flipping him out of the ring.
The crowd cheered their favorite as he stumbled up and stood heaving. A few more men came out to help the exhausted loser up. One man shouted out to the crowd for a challenger to beat their champion. Avicenna looked at Achatës to find a strange look on the Spartan's face. Achatës smiled at him.
"Achatës?" he asked just as the Spartan stood up and waved down to the gathered men in the arena.
"Here!" he shouted, waving his hands. A few others answered the challenge as well, but the eyes of the crowd were fixed on the Spartan.
As he moved to go down to the arena, Avicenna caught his arm. "Are you mad? What are you doing?" he demanded.
Achatës simply gave him a beautiful smile. "Come on," he whispered, taking Avicenna's hand and pulling him behind him as he made his way down. Along with other volunteers, they entered the arena with loud cheering from the crowd.
Several men swarmed about them to ready them for the ring. One pulled the robe from Achatës' shoulders and then came towards Avicenna with the same intention. The Athenian clutched at his clothing and scowled at the man.
"Here, I want to go first before he is too tired," Achatës was telling the overseer.
Another attendant came around with several bowls of an oily liquid, passing them out around the contenders. He pushed one into Avicenna's hands and moved on. The Athenian just stared at what he'd been given.
"They think you're my attendant," Achatës said, gesturing to several others who were getting oiled down with the substance in their wooden bowls.
Blankly, Avicenna dipped his fingers into the liquid and followed suit, watching his hands moving over Achatës' golden skin, leaving his flesh shining.
"I don't know what is going though your mind," he muttered as he spread the oil.
"Quickly Cenna," Achatës whispered excitedly, looking into Avicenna's eyes with a slight smile. "They're going to start soon."
Avicenna swallowed whatever words came to his lips and gave a quick rubdown to Achatës' back and legs, avoiding obvious certain parts of his body. Achatës said nothing as he finished himself up and stepped out into the sunlight.
The crowd cheered at the sight of him and bets began being made. Physically, the man was larger than Achatës but not by far. However, the sneer on his face gave away that he was much more ready to get violent with this match than the one before. He'd had time to rest and was ready to go.
It occurred to Avicenna that this was really dangerous, that man was really dangerous. That is wasn't just a match for him, this was like a private war.
"Achatës!" Avicenna rushed out to catch the Spartan before he stepped into the actual arena. Achatës looked down at him as Avicenna virtually hugged his arm to stop him.
"Just tell me why you're doing this!" he hissed.
Achatës cocked his head. Then, he smiled and actually touched Avicenna's chin to raise his face some. "Ask me that again some time. But for now, it's because I want to." Then, before Avicenna could stop him, he'd leaned down and given him a peck on the lips. The crowd around them cheered, and Achatës was gone.
Avicenna stood where he was, watching the Spartan go. He touched his lips with his fingertips, a reaction he knew was starkly different than that of last night's at the bath house. As he saw Achatës near the ring, being drilled on rules by the overseer, it didn't even occur to him to be angry.
He looked out at the crowd, which had grown since they'd first arrived. Their eyes were on the Spartan, all honey-gold in the sun right from his hair to the bronze of his gleaming flesh.
Achatës looked from the arena to where Avicenna still stood, barely listening to what the other men were telling him. Then, he smiled.
The Athenian felt something then, something he had not expected. He couldn't even put a name to it, but it was there and it left him with a mixture of pride and anger, awe and... what?
Achatës stepped into the ring, flipping his hair back from his eyes one last time before crouching down a bit opposite of his opponent, his breathing already hard in anticipation.
Avicenna rushed to the outer edge of the arena with the rest of the attendants where he had perhaps the best view of them all. He was still wondering what had driven Achatës to this impulse, to fight a well-seasoned man hand to hand with no training?
The arbitrator shouted at them to begin and the crowd launched into an uproar. Achatës circled his opponent with a hard look in his eyes, like a lion, complete with the golden mane, stalking his prey. How could he have the audacity to take the offense right from the start?
His opponent seemed to be insulted by it and he whirled around, growling and wrapping the Spartan's midsection in a bear-like hug, intending to simply throw him out of the arena with blind strength.
But Achatës would not have it. He ducked down and slid from the man's embrace, turning quickly on his heels to reverse the hold. He dropped all his weight to one knee, throwing the other off balance and into the dirt.
Avicenna watched in horror and fascination. If the Spartan had never wrestled before, then Avicenna was the son of Zeus himself. No beginner's luck was that good; Achatës was too fast, too predicting of the other man's lunges.
It was probably in record time that the Spartan had flung the other from the ring and stood over him in triumph, dusty and tousled, and looked for all the world like the barbarian Avicenna had thought him to be.
And gods, was he beautiful. As Avicenna watched, he was for some reason reminded of his father. For no other reason than Philip had once been the only man he had ever admired. And watching Achatës now, modestly accepting congratulations and praise... he felt those feelings rising up again.
Achatës fought three times more while Avicenna watched, beating all of them though by the end of the third he began to look a bit winded. Despite his obvious strength and endurance, Avicenna knew he was going to get hurt eventually if he went on with this. And if he got hurt... well, it would delay their travels.
Avicenna pushed through the crowd and caught Achatës' arm after the fourth fight and pulled him away from the other men who stood there.
"Enough, Spartan," he whispered. "What are you trying to prove? I want to go now." He looked up into Achatës' eyes, envisioning only the worst of injuries he could suffer in this folly. "Please," he said.
Achatës' eyes were warm as he looked down at Avicenna for a moment, then up at the sky. He met Avicenna's eyes again and gave that cheeky half-smile of his. "It's getting dark anyway," he conceded. He motioned for his robes.
Avicenna walked in silence when they were finally making their way back to Phegeus' keep. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of the street and looked up at the Spartan.
"That was a stupid and foolish thing to do!" he said.
Achatës turned and cocked his head. "Why?"
His innocent calm was maddening. Avicenna clenched his fists. "What man in his right mind all of a sudden decides he wants to wrestle trained heathen?"
he demanded. "What if you had been hurt?"
Achatës smiled and began walking again. "Why are you so angry? I knew what I was doing."
Avicenna had to run to catch up with him. "But why?"
"I told you, I wanted to."
"That's not a reason!"
The Spartan stopped and looked down at him seriously. "Why do anything in life then? Has everything got to have a reason?" He looked up into the distance they still had to walk. "Some things don't need an explanation. Haven't you learned that?"
Avicenna huffed. "Everything's got an explanation, a reason behind it. Or else it wouldn't be."
"Spoken like a true Athenian!" Achatës laughed.
They were nearing the torch lights of Phegeus' front gates. Achatës sped up their pace, taking strides so long that Avicenna almost had to trot to keep up with him.
But Avicenna didn't even notice. "I'm serious! Can't you ever be for once?"
Achatës stopped. They were standing right in the front courtyard, alone and quiet but for the sounds of a gentle night breeze through the trees.
"I am serious, Cenna," he said softly.
Avicenna stared up at him, looking a child again. "How is it then, that I cannot tell when you are serious and when you are toying with me?"
Night had fallen around them, faster than they had realized. In the light of flickering torches, Achatës' skin was dark, his eyes dark but the flash of his quick, gentle smile was white.
"Shall I show you then?" he whispered. Then, without waiting for Avicenna's answer, he said, "Last night at the bath when I kissed you, that was me toying with you." He paused. "This is me being serious-"
He took Avicenna's face between his hands and pressed their lips firmly together. He then coaxed Avicenna's mouth open to receive his tongue and make this kiss the most intimate one of the three they'd shared.
Apprehensively, Avicenna's hands came up to hold Achatës' wrists, unsure of what he should do and knowing he would not have the willpower to do it anyway. Not with Achatës' controlling him like this, holding his head and his very soul it seemed, in limbo.
Achatës broke the kiss, a bit breathless. Released, Avicenna backed away against the wall behind him. He too was breathing hard.
"That," he breathed, "was not welcome."
Achatës gave a rich smile. "You didn't hit at me for it at least."
"There are more refined ways of resistance than physical violence," Avicenna said a bit angrily.
"What? Like kissing back?"
Avicenna's hands clenched at his sides. "I didn't!"
Achatës said nothing, he just lifted his eyebrows in a maddeningly innocent manner.
"I didn't," Avicenna insisted.
"I think you did."
"If I kiss back you'll know it!" Avicenna growled without thinking.
The Spartan turned on him. "And when will that be?"
Avicenna just stared up at him. Achatës' eyebrows were furrowed, but it was difficult now to tell if he was still teasing; his voice had a mildly angered tinge to it. Almost like... impatience? His hair was still disheveled from the fighting he'd done and it framed his face in wild mass, giving him that look of barbaric... dignity. His utter masculine magnificence at that moment made Avicenna's breath catch in his throat so that he appeared speechless.
The servant that came jogging up to them was Avicenna's saving grace. He was quite sweaty and out of breath. "Master wants you to come up to the house at once," he panted.
Phegeus was pacing the floor when they arrived at the main house, with scarce another word mentioned about their previous conversation.
"There you are," he said with a look of relief on his face. "There are men on horseback in town asking about you," he said to Achatës. My wife's maidens heard them at the market asking about for a man of your height and build with a green-eyed boy at his side."
Achatës gave a sidelong glance at Avicenna.
"They said he was wanted for murder," Phegeus continued.
"Murder?" Avicenna spoke up, looking back at Achatës, who remained silent.
"At any rate," Phegeus said, "I would suggest you make your ride tonight, cousin. For your own safety and ours. I already have your mounts ready, packed with food and clothing."
Achatës nodded solemnly and put a hand on Phegeus' shoulder. "We will go now," he said. "I would not put your family in the middle of it, old friend. Tell Ianessa farewell for me, would you?"
The older man patted Achatës' arm and nodded. "May the gods protect you through all of this. I know you could not be wanted for what they have charged you for."
"A mistake indeed," Achatës said, nodding again. He turned to leave in the direction of the stables with Avicenna close at his heels.
They had not planned on riding in the dark, but Phegeus' servants had even packed warm, dark cloaks that were customarily worn by travelers at night. As they made their way out of the city, Avicenna's heart beat hastened with every group of riders they passed.
None stopped them however. It wasn't until the city lights had dimmed far behind them that Avicenna let out a breath of relief.
They rode in silence for a while until Achatës spoke up.
"Aren't you even going to ask me about it?"
Avicenna just shook his head. "I too am accused of murder," he said softly. He could feel the Spartan's gaze but still didn't meet it. "My own mother accuses me of it, of killing my uncle."
The Spartan looked at him. "Did you do it?"
Achatës looked back at the road ahead of them, or what they could see of it anyway. There was no moon out tonight to light their path, but it was just as well.
"But there is a difference," Achatës said finally. "I did do it."
Avicenna looked at him. "You..?"
The Spartan nodded. "I didn't mean to, but it happened."
Avicenna's mind flashed back to the night that Sybil had helped them out of their cell.
"People saw you both fighting before the races! They don't believe it was an accident-"
"The races," he whispered. He thought back to a time more recent when Achatës had rigged their chariot to be pulled by one horse, a trick no man without some prior experience could have done. Then the way Achatës handled his horse, the specific finger positions he held the reins with that was truly typical of chariot drivers. Philip had always held the reins that way.
"You're a driver?" he asked softly.
"I was a driver," Achatës corrected. "With all the trouble it's gotten me, I'd be just as well off never racing again."
If only my father had had that choice, Avicenna thought to himself. How dare the Spartan give up something Philip had loved so dearly!
"Do you regret it?" he asked suddenly, almost spitefully.
"Do you regret killing that man, whoever he was?"
Achatës didn't miss a beat. "No, no I don't. It wasn't intentional, but he's dead all the same and I'm glad for it."
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