Though the style was wildly different, the principle of Sura's royal bath was similar to onsen, and Ryou found himself oddly reassured by this small familiarity. The light supper served on the benches of a warm anteroom was excellent; fine bread free of grit, meat that didn't taste a little funny, fruit that was not even slightly withered. The wine was almost as good as the one Ryou had barely tasted in Leyam's chambers. Urtupati took great care in shaving Ryou and anointing him with various fragrant oils, and then he gave Ryou a massage that felt like that Roman deserter, Gaius, working him over again. It wasn't for the faint of heart, but once Ryou cleaned off the oil, soaped, rinsed off and then slipped into the large basin of warm water with Darius, he felt just about as good as he'd ever felt since coming to the Outlands.
The basin walls had tiers so that bathers could sit and recline with the water up to their chests. Ryou sank down in the warmth with a groan of relief.
Darius smirked. "Still doing fine, I take it?"
"Better than fine now. Thanks."
The sun was setting outside of the large open balcony. It must never get cold here, Ryou concluded drowsily. Right now the temperature was hot but agreeable with the evening breeze, particularly in conjunction with the bath itself, warm from the hypocaust. Ryou soaked in bliss, watching the faint current chivvy around packets of herbs that'd been tossed into the water to perfume and purify it. The water came directly from the aqueduct, Darius said, and was heated and piped into the various baths before flowing outside and making its way through what the locals called 'the scented gardens', due to the fragrances, oils and soap that soaked the soil.
They were alone now, to Ryou's relief. Three men, two with slave marks, had been hovering around them all the time while they ate and washed off. Ryou hadn't felt comfortable with their subservient presence, just a minor part of the greater moral discomfort of the notion of slavery in the Outlands which, he had to admit, was probably what bugged him about this place the most, even more than wars and killing. It was also an intrinsic part of life from here to the Maurya Empire and beyond, so Ryou was trying to drop his qualms into the same oubliette he was putting a few other things such as animal sacrifice, women's rights and absolute monarchy. But with Urtupati and his brethren hovering around obsequiously and calling him My Lord, it wasn’t quite as easy...
Darius muttered a curse, and Ryou cracked open an eyelid, glad of the distraction from his increasingly sterile thoughts. The two of them had settled in one of the corners of the square pool so they could sit on the underwater tiers at right angles and talk easily, rather than across the four meters of the basin’s width. Darius was removing the disks braided in his hair and attacking the latter with a comb, with mitigated success. Darius had ignored the presence of the slaves and servants throughout the evening with the habit of a lifetime, though he'd oiled and scraped himself, refusing a massage. Ryou wasn't surprised, Darius was self-reliant by both nature and necessity, not having these amenities on the field of battle. He could have used some help with his hair, though. It'd probably not been properly shampooed and combed since the hospital in Tokyo, as Darius would not have taken time out for that much barbering on the eve of the battle of Essin, and he and Ryou had been on the move ever since.
"Need some help with that?" Ryou asked.
Darius just gave an amused snort as if Ryou had made some ridiculous and even slightly indecent joke. Apparently a man did not take care of another man's hair, not unless the first man was property and thus did not count. Ryou did not insist.
Ryou watched him for awhile, mind wandering back over the earlier part of the evening. He had a lot of questions...and he was waiting for Darius to say something, Ryou realized. He was afraid of touching on some sore point if he just asked straight out 'so, how long has your brother been cross-dressing?' Ryou shook his head, sending a drop flying from his hair before it could put another streak of moisture on his glasses. Right, maybe he should wait until Darius said something, and Darius would wait until Ryou asked, and then they'd be back where they were in Essin with something desperate going on and Ryou would have to jump through dimensional hoops in order to get his answers. Waiting for an auspicious moment to talk about cultural differences like animal sacrifices were one thing; but if Ryou was going to be cautious regarding important and personal details concerning his lover, the man he was forging a relationship with, then he might as well have returned to Japan and gone through with his marriage to the proper, intelligent and mother-approved Misuko-san.
Darius tossed down the comb and submerged briefly to rinse his hair. Then he shook himself like Chamrosh coming out of a stream, leaned back and picked up the wine goblet on a tray one of the nameless slaves had left within easy reach before discreetly disappearing.
Ryou cleared his throat. It sounded loud in the baths after the short silence. "Darius, I wanted to ask you, ah, your brother-"
Darius burst out laughing, sending raucous echoes bouncing around the tiles.
"You should have seen your face back in the Hall!"
"His appearance did catch me off guard," Ryou said stiffly. His faint undertone of accusation made his lover laugh even harder. "Great, I'm glad you find it amusing. Do you think I offended him?"
"With that golden mask you wear? No, I don't think anyone who doesn't know you would have noticed anything out of the ordinary in your behaviour. And even if he did, Leyam would expect that kind of reaction. Hell, he courts it."
Darius splashed water over his shoulder, still grinning, and then without preamble or change of expression he said, "My father, king Narseh-Allit, was murdered seventeen years ago in front of the temple of Enlil by five men, two of whom were supposed to be his guards. We never found them or who was behind it, though it's pretty obvious in hindsight. The motherless bastards also killed Queen Sophrone who was with him, and our little sister, a babe in arms, the merciless fucks. That left the reins of power flapping in the air, and blood flowed thick that day. Leyam and I were out in the practice grounds at the time, training our archery. We were found there by some soldiers from Sophrone's personal guard and isolated for three days while their officers decided who they should follow, who they could trust and who was likely to pay them their wages. When we emerged, Leyam was king, though nobody would stand to his banner because of his age. He was eleven. I was eight."
Ryou was silent. Nothing he could say would measure up to that, and Darius's straightforward tone did not require any sympathetic background noises.
"Tensions had been growing between a lot of factions the year before, mainly between those who wanted to put all our army into helping the Alliance push the Legions out of the Free Cities, and the cowardly jackals who wanted to insure we became an ally and protectorate of the Imperium so we could be the strongest, Rome-supported power in our region. When the king was murdered, all hell broke loose; like fighting dogs dropped into the arena. Dozens more were dead before the priests of Enlil had even the time to lay my father out on a bier. Things were real messy that year as first one camp then the other gained the support of the noble families and the provinces. I didn't really perceive any of this," Darius added dryly as he scrubbed his beard in fresh water. "I'd been brought up to go into the army, so my father never bothered teaching me much about politics. All I knew was that our tutors tended to disappear without a trace every three months, and new ones appear; some would give us our lessons in Assyrian, others in Latin, and none would let us out even as far as the gardens. I made their lives miserable; I don't do well locked indoors. Leyam was the one who had to live with the knowledge that at any moment a faction might take power that would see the benefit of not having a prince and a bastard of the old king walking around...Then that motherfucker Cassius Leius won the political game and took over."
"A Roman?" asked Ryou, surprised.
"No, a Ionian from the city-state of Hellias. I think his name of birth was Castor Liex, but he was so pro-Roman he made Emperor Galleo look lukewarm by comparison. As he was the younger brother of Queen Sophrone, he couldn't take my father's throne, but he was blood-related to Leyam and had lots of powerful cronies, so he could be regent. He had to reign through Leyam, which meant he was only going to be able to do it for a few years. Unless by then Leyam could be persuaded to have Cassius continue on as his deputy."
"The day after he took power, we became a Roman Protectorate, rot his heart. He exiled any who were too vocal about it, then he invited a contingent of Legionaries into the 'difficult' provinces and even in Sura to keep the peace. Which I have to say, they were very good at. Nothing like the crucifying a few opponents and their families along the highways to insure that people stay quiet. Bar that, the Legions are disciplined and always behave with restraint towards the inhabitants of occupied territories, which is what we fucking well were to all intents and purposes. Good thing my father was already dead, or he'd have died at the humiliation...
"At that time I was separated from Leyam and dropped out of sight into the barracks. It did me a world of good. I told you I was a little piece of work when I was young, right? Well, some old veterans of my father's campaigns protected me for his sake, but they sure didn't put up with any shit. I tasted leather on a near daily basis for a long time. I was a cocky little fuck, tall for my age, strong, well trained by the best since I was old enough to walk, pretty good looking - I take after my mother that way, I'm told. Let me tell you, I'd made my sacrifice to Ishhara by the time I was thirteen, with a temple-street girl of sixteen who thought I was older than she was and who gave it to me for free. So yeah, back when I was nine, I was doing okay. But Leyam had been taken into the palace to become a perfect Roman-style ruler under Cassius's thumb. And I was starting to hear funny things about my brother. Some said he was cowed by the king's murder and the threat he was living under, and it was warping him. Real Assyrians said that what was warping him was that Roman-loving jackal teaching him to be a degenerate; that's why he spent all his days indoors playing with dolls, behaving like a deviant with the slaves and dressing like a girl."
Ryou, startled, paused with his own wine cup near his lips. The whole drag thing suddenly sounded considerably more sinister...
"Yeah," said Darius, catching Ryou's change of expression. "You get it. But at the time...I was young, I saw things no further than a child does. I never wondered, never questioned, I'd just thrash the hides of cadets two heads taller than me for rumor-monging about my brother, our king, the fickle swine. I was waiting for Leyam to grow a couple of years older and kick Cassius out of the country, and then things would be the same as when we were children. They called us the prince and the half-prince of Assyria back then. Leyam has the presence and the mind of a future King, I had the brawn and the courage to become his general; we were the pride of our family, of our country. That was the future we'd once had before us, the one I thought we still had; we'd be the prince and the half-prince once more and we would not be touched or tainted by what was going on in the world.
"I learned. So did the world. It learned to call us by two very different names by the time we were grown."
Once upon a time, there were two princes in Assyria...
"Hi Leyam," said Darius, leaping to the ground from the window. "Nice dress."
"Go hang yourself," said Leyam without bothering to look up from the scroll he was reading. He was always reading. He'd pretend to read De Historia Imperi, but he really read the texts Darius filched for him from the library and temples. Boring stuff to a nine-year-old, all about past politics rather than wars, and mostly in Greek, which Darius had never mastered much beyond the alphabet.
Leyam was wearing a pink affair and two red skirts adorned with silver tassels. Darius didn't think about it much anymore, beyond noting that his brother didn't look all that good in that color. He knew the dresses were a way of bullying and punishing his brother for refusing to be turned into a nice little Roman. If he had to choose between dressing like a Roman boy or an Assyrian girl, it'd be just like Leyam to choose the latter. Darius obscurely approved, though he didn't know why Leyam put up with it at all. But Leyam had always been like that. He'd not get into an undignified scrap outright, he'd just take twice the revenge later. Darius had good cause to know; before they'd lost the king last year, the brothers had already been close, but half their interaction had been a running battle of astonishing ferocity that would only be set aside if a tutor or an older boy from the court proved to be a greater common enemy.
That was behind them now. They had the greatest common enemy of all times. Fucking 'uncle' Cassius.
Darius repeated it out loud, just for the pleasure of it.
"Please come up with other words," said Leyam snidely as he tilted the scroll to the lamplight. "You spend too much time in the barracks. He's not here, anyway, he's in Thezali province until tomorrow."
"Nah, he got back shortly after sundown, me and Barodor saw him from the gate," said Darius, looking for the plate of candied fruit and sweetmeats that was frequently on his brother's writing table.
The scroll hit the floor as Leyam shot out of his low chair. "He's here?!"
"That's what I said- hey!"
His brother had grabbed him by the arm and was hustling him towards the window. "Leave."
"What? But he just got in. It's the first qa, the night watch has already turned out, why would he bother to come here at this time-"
Darius's mouth went dry as he realized that, over the sound of Leyam dragging him towards the window, he could hear footsteps outside.
Leyam shoved Darius up to the window sill- then yanked his brother back down with a bitten curse. Leyam's chambers gave out onto a flat roof a story below, that and the decorative tilework was how Darius got up and down to regularly visit his brother. And the night patrol's first stop was always that roof, faithfully watching over the royal suites. Darius knew their routine, they'd move on in a few minutes to go inspect the gardens.
Leyam made a noise of something like pain, and shoved Darius behind the drapery.
"Promise me you'll leave as soon as the guards are gone, whatever happens. Promise!"
"Huh-" said Darius and then he had a mouthful of drapery.
The door opened, the curtain over it was pushed aside and the regent to the Assyrian throne came into the room.
"Oh, uncle Cassius, you're back," said Leyam neutrally. He'd positioned himself furthest from the window he could manage.
"That's right, the subsidiaries of the Taibor were quite passable, we didn't have to go out of our way to ford them." Cassius was dressed in Roman garments as usual, and he'd taken the time to bathe after his journey. He had one arm looped around a girl of perhaps fourteen made up in pretty colors and jewels, and without much light in her eyes.
"I heard from Maximus that you did well in your studies while I was away. That is good." Cassius always sounded easy and urbane, even when he was reading out a death sentence. "I brought you some more to study tonight. And a treat," he added with a smooth smile, though his hands were empty other than the one on the girl's shoulder.
Leyam said nothing and just stood there like a pillar.
Cassius looked surprised. "Now what?" There was an edge of sharpness behind the easygoing tone. "This isn't going to shock you now, is it? Aten help you, child, if you arrive at Caius Octavius's house with that kind of attitude."
"Can we...I was busy, Uncle. Can we..." Leyam was looking around the room at his writing table, his scrolls, his maps, his carved wooden soldiers and mathematical tablets for siege engine elevations, anywhere but at the window. "I was going to go to bed."
"Well then that's perfect," said Cassius, pushing the girl towards the screens that split the study from the bedroom. He followed, reaching for Leyam in passing, fingers brushing the tawny hair.
At which point Darius sank his teeth into the man's thumb.
Cassius shouted and jerked- and screamed as Darius only ground down more and hung on, flesh ripping beneath his eyeteeth.
The door burst open, and Caeso Atius ran in followed by a guard. Atius's sword was already drawn- but Leyam threw himself in the way of the bodyguard with a shout.
"Let go!" Cassius tried to pry Darius off, then he smashed his fist against the boy's head. The second time, Darius's mouth jerked open. He staggered back and sat down heavily on the ground.
"You-" Cassius was no longer suave. He stared at his torn and bleeding thumb and then at the child. "You little-"
Darius shook his head once and then shot up from the floor with no warning.
Atius brushed past Leyam and caught Darius mid-air just as he was about to latch onto Cassius again.
"Got you, you little whoreson," the bodyguard grunted.
"Hold him!" gasped Cassius.
Darius's face was a snarling mask, blood all over his chin. The hate in his eyes burned with the passion and purity only children could conjure. Cassius stared, then he grimaced angrily and put his hand on the dagger he wore at his belt.
"No!" Leyam shouted, moving between them, arms wide.
"Leyam, step aside," said Cassius, still working on getting back to suave.
"I'll do it, my lord," said Atius, getting a better hold on the struggling nine-year-old and turning towards the door. "We should have gotten rid of him from the start. I'll-"
"No," said Leyam.
Atius hesitated. The command, and that was what it was, had not been directed at him, but it covered him nonetheless.
Leyam and Cassius stared at each other. Nobody said anything for a while; the only noise in the room was Darius's panting and the occasional drip of blood falling onto tile from the drops escaping Cassius's toga pressed to his injury. The other soldier who'd followed Atius was gaping instead of doing anything constructive. The girl Cassius had brought had sunk back against the wall and was staring at the blood pouring down Cassius's fine tunic as if she did not know what it was but thought the color was pretty.
Leyam put down his arms and stood like a pillar again, looking away. Cassius smiled. It was the smile of a reptile. "Very well, my King. We will spare the by-blow if that is your wish." But his attitude said it was a wish that was being bought at a price.
Darius once more made a spirited attempt to get away from Atius and hurl himself at the regent. The latter smiled as if he now found the child's efforts amusing. "It is true that a monarch should exercise some mercy, Leyam. But you are aware that by assaulting me - in your presence no less - he has committed a crime against your sovereignty. That cannot go unpunished."
Leyam shrugged. It looked horribly artificial on his stiff body, the girl's top now askew on his thin shoulders. "Fine by me. Beat the idiot. He's used to it. He's just a blockhead, he's not worth your time, Cassius."
"Uncle," corrected Cassius. "How old is that deva, anyway? Aren't you the oldest?"
"He's nine," muttered Leyam, who'd been the same height as his half-brother ever since he was ten and Darius seven.
"Damn." Cassius looked at Darius again, and then he laughed.
"My lord?" said Atius, startled. .
"It's fine, Atius. I know exactly what to do with the little beast. Follow me."
Atius didn't hesitate, he threw Darius over his shoulder and walked out of Leyam's apartments, ignoring the child snarling and pounding on his armoured back with his fists. Cassius, followed by a suspicious Leyam, strode through the palace hallways and down the marble stairs. He paused to take a cloth from a startled slave heading back from the baths, and wrapped it around his thumb as he made his way out into the gardens. Darius was trying to twist around to hit Atius about the ears and neck despite the jostling he was getting when Cassius veered from the path and took a shortcut to the wall and the royal stables.
"If you're going to have him horsewhipped, do it in front of the whole garrison," said Leyam suddenly. "It would be good to make an example of it, and it would shame him the more."
"In front of your father's veterans, you mean?" asked Cassius approvingly. "That's very good, Leyam, particularly the bit about making it an example. Most persuasive, and had it been what I had in mind, it might have swayed me. But you are mistaken if you think those grizzled old cowards would make me hesitate to do anything permanent to the little wretch. That was a miscalculation on your part. Try to do better next time."
"I didn't mean-"
"Of course you didn't, child, of course you didn't."
Darius's brother didn't say anything else, and a few seconds later they were in front of the kennels. The dogs inside were barking at the approach of so many footsteps this late at night. The door opened just as Cassius reached up to bang on it. The elderly man in charge of the hunting pack rubbed the sleep and surprise out of his eyes as he looked out.
"My lord?" he gasped, startled and anxious. Cassius walked right past him, looking around.
"This will do fine," he said, then he glanced at the kennel master. "Do you have a- no, wait, this is even better. Atius, over there."
"Yes, my lord," said Atius in the satisfied tone of one who'd figured out the plan and agreed with it wholeheartedly. He carried Darius to the wall where the larger hounds were tied and where an empty ring with a chain and collar lay on the ground. He swung the boy down and shoved him into the wall hard enough to knock the breath out of him, and had the reinforced leather around his neck before Darius could do anything about it. He had to hike the collar tight and make an extra hole with his knife to get it fit around a nine-year-old's throat. "Don't move," he whispered viciously as he punched through the leather, "or I'll accidentally cut off your ear, and your nose too while I'm at it."
Darius shot back a few breathless words he'd learned in the barracks until Atius shoved him hard against the wall again.
As soon as the adult stood up, the dogs that'd been cautiously crouching back moved in, sniffing at the scent of blood.
"They'll hurt him," said Leyam tightly, then he corrected himself, "they'll kill him, he's too small. We were going to let him live."
"Nonsense," said Cassius, "they'll get along fine. It's the best place for the animal." He approached the wall and gave his handiwork an approving glance. Darius looked up quickly- but Atius brought his leg down and back, pinning the boy against the wall, head smacking into the wood.
"That's right, Atius, keep the dog down. Hmmm." Cassius looked at the boy, and then focused on the collar. "What's this? It has a name. Ghan. That means 'strike', if I remember my ancient Avestan. A dog's name; that's perfect. Leyam, you'll make it a decree, will you not? "
"What?" asked Leyam, confused. Behind him, the kennel master gaped.
"That will be the little cur's name from now on," said Cassius as he made his way towards the door. "Ghan the dog. He'll answer to that name alone, he'll live in this kennel until he's ready to crawl to his masters, and if he bites again, he'll be getting more than a kick in the teeth," he added with a pointed look at Leyam as he drew near the young king. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Leyam through clenched teeth.
"Good. Come on, Atius. And you," he added to the astounded kennel master, still without bothering to look fully in the man's direction, "you will give him the same food as the other curs. If you show him preferential treatment, I will see you whipped, castrated and tied up next to him." He didn't wait for the master's frightened acquiescence before striding out of the kennel and back towards the palace.
Leyam followed in his incongruous finery, stopping near the master to mutter, "See that he survives or I will have you quartered." Then he left the panicking man behind him and followed the regent. Atius left last. He didn't give the master any advice, just hooked a hand beneath the latter's elbow and hauled him out of the kennels. The man didn't dare protest.
The door closed, hiding all but a sliver of the light from the torches burning along the garden path for the first watch of the night. Darkness and the snuffling of dogs ensued.
The two nearest went to investigate the new arrival, ears and noses pricked. These were the large hunting dogs meant to hound bears and lions, and a few were trained for warfare as well; children were not allowed near them until they'd neared a man's height and could handle a whip.
The largest straightened, approached stiff-legged, eyes focusing on the boy's face. Darius continued to stare at the door. The hound closed in, faint growl of dominance at the ready, and then Darius looked around, hauled back and punched down on its muzzle with all the venom that could not reach its target.
The hound yelped and staggered back, shaking its head. It snarled and looked up- met Darius's gaze and decided to go back to its own little territory.
They left him mostly alone after that. Darius went back to staring at the door.
At the start of the fifth qa, as the night grew darkest, a scratch at the other side of the wooden wall made him stiffen. The chain around his neck clinked as he turned around. When the scratch came again, he rapped his knuckles softly on the wood.
With a creak, one of the wooden planks started to shudder. A knife's blade appeared in the crack, levering and sawing. Darius reached for his belt, and realized Atius had relieved him of his own dagger. This was the first time he'd thought of it all evening. It had been a small one, fit only for eating, but it would have helped get that plank off easier; as it were, he got splinters as he pried it off.
The wood gave way with a loud creak, and Leyam looked through the opening.
The brothers stared at each other through the gap. The kennels backed onto the paddock near the stables, to get the horses' used to the smell of dogs and vice versa. Leyam was in a servant's tunic that was a little too big on him, a cap on his head.
"I couldn't do anything," he said. "For what you did, he could have you killed. Nobody would raise a hand."
Darius stared at him, a set look that did not waver. "Is it like the Greeks?"
Leyam opened his mouth, but didn't say anything, and Darius continued without waiting for an answer anyway.
"Because that would be-" there was a hole in that sentence where the word 'alright' refused to dwell "-but that's not what it is, because maybe you're at the age where a Greek boy might be- might be courted by a mentor, but they'd never do that, he makes you wear a dress, Sopartes told me back when he was still our tutor that it is a great wrong to turn a boy into a girl, men are men and women are women. Okay, we have the painted men in Sura, sure, but they're not warriors and some of them are whores and you're the king of Assyria. I am going to kill him."
The last was added in the same intense child's whisper, it took Leyam a second to react.
"You'll do nothing of the sort."
Darius's lower lip thrust out, an expression that made him look stubborn as well as ridiculously young.
"Darius..." Leyam sighed and propped his chin on his fist, his eyes dark in the half-light of the moon above, the only illumination. "He wants to send me to Roma Praetorium."
Darius's mouth opened around an unvoiced cry of pain, expression suddenly lost.
"Don't worry. I'm not leaving. I'm not going to get educated in Rome, I'm not going to become Roman and I'm certainly not going to live with Cassius's pervert master."
"I can kill him," said Darius as if continuing the first argument without a pause. "If you distract Atius, I'll sneak up behind the son of a whore and put steel in his liver. I've learned how to do it, I'm strong enough. I can do it, Leyam."
"Yeah, and then what?" asked his brother tiredly.
"They can kill me! I don't care!"
"They will kill you, I care, but that's not the point," said Leyam in the same tone. "The Roman faction is much too strong and they're now backed by triarii in the provinces and even here in the capital. There's Romans everywhere you look, overseeing the construction of the roads. If you kill Cassius, another like him will take his place."
"Five hundred Roman shitlickers won't stand up against a thousand free Assyrian men. Two thousand even! They'll protect you! Leyam, you're their King, if you give them one word-"
"I didn't see them last year," said Leyam in a voice that sent chills down Darius's spine. "Darius, you have to understand how it is. Cassius is smart. He's making me wear a dress, and his friends spread rumours about me, so that the Assyrians won't want to stand behind me. Without a King to unite them, there's too many factions, one for each noble family too stubborn to set aside their differences. Not unless someone forces them to. Someone-"
"That's why he makes you wear a dress?" Darius interrupted in a muffled voice. He was chewing on a thumbnail and looking at his brother and then away again.
Leyam paused. "Yeah. I have to do it if I don't want to accidentally fall off the highest tower with my hands tied behind my back. It's how Cassius knows that I'm under his thumb, because I allow it. In turn, it insures I'm even more under his control because I'll need the muscle of his troops to hold the country even when I'm grown. This kind of politics is what he's been teaching me this last year. He can't have me helpless; he wants me to grow up like him, to be his ally. He will need my support as much as I'll need his one day if the Alliance truly unites and decided to put pressure on my country. But he's not bedding me, if that's what you're worried about. I may be young enough but that means nothing since I am King, and he cannot afford to undercut me that much."
Leyam said it very straight, looking Darius right in the eye. Darius should have been reassured. But something deep inside of him flinched. His brother wouldn't lie about that. Would he? The reasoning was sound to Darius's ears, so surely Leyam was telling the truth…Right? And there couldn't be anything worse than the earlier hypothesis that'd sent Darius barrelling out from behind the curtain to plant his teeth into the regent's thumb.
At the far back of young Darius's mind crawled a mostly unperceived image of Leyam and the dead-eyed girl and Cassius watching and teaching- but that was too alien for the boy's mind to fully grasp...He fastened his eyes on Leyam and decided to trust.
"You have to get into your head that Cassius is not an idiot. He could never afford to be. What else he became...He was sent to study with that man, his master, Senator Caius Octavius, when he was your age. All because he was the fourth son of the second wife of the Hellias king and nobody could care less if he was made a hostage as a consequence of border tensions in that region. He was seen as dispensable from the start, and then his own father sent him to that man-" Leyam interrupted himself as if sensing that what he was trying to say wasn't getting through Darius's hostility. "Well, that's what happened; his father wanted a few of his spare sons to learn Roman ways while the others learned from the Greeks, like that he'd make good with both and get his milk from two different cows. And Cassius learned damn well. Two dozen years later he's back, and the one brother of his who did not die fighting the Legions just happened to eat some bad food at a banquet where nobody else even caught a cramp, and died screaming the next day. Cassius is now Tribune-Consul of Hellias for life. Not that he cares, he's sold out his home land to the Imperium and set his sights much higher. Hellias is a city and a small region; Assyria is a whole empire. He's got his priorities straight. Make no mistake, Darius, Cassius needs me to reign if he wants to do so with ease, but if he can't do it the easy way, him and his Roman allies will slit my throat and bathe our land in blood and fire until it can no longer fight back."
Darius gave him the same look of helpless pain as before.
"I don't care about dying," said Leyam in passing, as if it hardly was worth mentioning, "but I will not let my land in the hands of these jackals. They'll rip it apart."
"But what are you going to do?"
Leyam was silent for what felt like a long time. The bitch at the left side of Darius managed to stretch to the end of her chain and poke her nose out the hole. Darius pushed her back absently.
"I am going to learn."
Leyam didn't answer directly. "We are going to have to be patient, Darius. We have to pretend he's won, that I'm becoming Roman like he wants me to; that I'm becoming everything he wants me to. I'll just learn slowly enough where it won't ever be quite the right time to send me away. I won't let them bundle me off to the Imperial capital. A king does not leave his country, not like this. Do you get it, Darius?"
"I'm going to have to pretend to be a Roman ruler. In a way, I'm going to have to really be the thing he wants me to be," said Leyam slowly. "But I swear to you right now, Darius. By the blood that runs through both our hearts I swear that whatever it looks like, whatever it seems I've forgotten, I'll remember who I am. Do you understand?"
The clouds of rage leaked out of Darius's mind. He knew. He was nine, and though politics had always bored him, he knew enough of them and of the ways of the world. He knew what his brother was saying, what was going to happen in the next few years. "Okay. Okay. I'll help. I'll go and-" Darius made a hacking noise in his throat, and then he muttered, "I'll go apologize. Then I can-"
The bitch barked and then whined when Darius shoved her away again with a shush.
Leyam pressed his fingers together against his lips, eyes fixed on a point of the wall beneath Darius as if looking for the words he had to say. "No," he finally said. Darius, staring at him, wondered when his brother, perpetually skinny and a little small for his age, had become a man, one who could think and talk and act like this. "Darius, I want you to make me a promise."
"Yes," said Darius immediately. Because though this man surprised him, Darius still knew him; this was his brother and his king.
"I want you to be yourself. I never want you to pretend like I will."
Darius blinked. "Huh? But Leyam, I can help-"
"You can help, Darius, but not in this way. Cassius has seen the truth about you, he won't forget it in a hurry. If nothing else, he'll have a scar on that thumb to remind him. If you suddenly become all nice, he won't believe it, and that'll get him suspicious about me. So don't be nice. Show him you hate his guts. Do it for both of us. You've always had a bit of a brutal side when you wanted to, bring that out. But don’t ever fake it, little brother. One of us has to stay himself, do you understand? I'm relying on you to always be yourself. Like that I will too."
Darius thought that made sense, mainly because he was nine and used to the ways boys talked. "But I have to do something more to help you."
"You will. And what I'm asking you isn't easy. For starters, do you want to apologize to him?"
"I'd rather be a eunuch," said Darius in an older, dangerous voice that could have been borrowed from the man he would one day become.
"Don't give the bastard ideas," muttered Leyam. "But that's what I mean. You'd have to cut your heart into pieces to apologize to that lech, so don't. But that means you'll be living in this kennel for awhile. For quite awhile. He may not look like it, but he's smart, and he doesn't forget fast."
Darius chewed that over, then he shrugged and gestured at the mutts behind him. "That's fine by me. I like these guys better than his courtiers."
"Yeah, I wish I could join you," said Leyam under his breath.
"Are you sure I can't help?" muttered Darius miserably after a short silence between the brothers.
"You will be helping me. You'll be my decoy. I'm asking you to get into lots of trouble, brother; the kind of trouble you used to cause when you were seven and didn't like our tutor. That will give Cassius leverage over me when I have to intercede on your behalf. It'll just make him think he has us both under control. Cassius won't be suspicious of a chained and collared beast who shows his hate openly; hell, it'll titillate him. He'll be more suspicious of the smiling one with the knife behind his back, which is why I'll have to be very careful. But I'll learn. We're both going to learn. I need you to become a warrior, Darius. You're training hard already, I know it, but you have to be better, you have to be the best. One day, I'll need you. When I've rooted out Cassius's sympathizers, when I've determined who is still Assyrian and who is a Roman in disguise, when I've learned all that he and his ilk have to teach me and I'm the master...then I'll need you."
"I’ll be there."
Leyam put his hands through the hole on either side of Darius's face, drew him forward and kissed his brother. Then he left without a further word.
Darius sat facing the hole for a long time. His brother had been wearing a servant's tunic, but he'd smelled of perfume.
Darius sat there, savagely wiping away the tears trickling down his face and turning his mask into a swirl of blood and dirt, the last time he ever cried in his life.
Darius shared the scraps from the kitchen with the other mutts, augmented by a few discreet additions thrown in by the kennel master when the latter thought he could get away with it. The boy slept with the other hounds, was made to run after game during hunts, and stayed in the kennels whenever he was not training in the barracks. He snarled at any who offered sympathy. He bit Cassius's soldiers who taunted him. He did considerably more if they weren't careful. They gave him a belting for every injury he caused. He ignored it and did it again as soon as he was healed. People soon lost the looks of scorn or pity and traded them in for disquieted expressions and sometimes fear. That was good. But it wasn't enough.
When he was ten, Darius decided that a warrior on a battlefield was not going to be of any use to Leyam, not for years to come. The more he learned about the world he and Leyam lived in, the more he realized how hard this battle was going to be, and it was not one that required phalanx formations or the perfect arc of a javelin throw. That was useless. He needed to learn another way to kill. Darius crept out nightly of the kennel through the broken planks he'd carefully arranged as a hidden exit, and went to the training fields to practice what he thought was the art of murder.
One night, the perfect opportunity to apply what he'd taught himself was in his grasp. One of Cassius's soldiers was sitting alone on an embankment near the artificial stream, the swirling waters breaking up the reflection of the half moon above the palace gardens. Darius would not stand a chance in a fair fight with a grown man yet, but if he could creep up behind the bastard, slit his throat and then make it look like a drunken fight, it'd throw confusion in the ranks, especially when the officers looked for a suspect. That was the kind of warrior Leyam needed now to fight the Romans and pretend-Romans infecting their country. Like that one, dressed up in gear that shamefully copied Legionary armour, drinking from a jar of liquor, watching the moon and occasionally laughing to himself in a silent fashion that shook his shoulders even as Darius approached him from behind.
"You've never seen me," said the man.
Darius, knife in hand, froze a man's length away.
The soldier tilted his head to look up at the stars. "You’ve seen me many times, but you've never seen me."
Darius hoped the idiot was totally drunk, though the cold feeling in his stomach told him the man sounded way too lucid.
"In the same way, you know me but you have no idea who I am. Can you answer that riddle, overly-young bastard prince?"
Cold feeling confirmed. Darius crouched, hidden as much as possible by darkness and a bush growing on the top of the embankment.
"That's good. Don't move. I might be talking to myself, or just playing a hunch," said the soldier, getting to his feet. He was a huge brute, large across the shoulders, towering high in the night. Darius had seen him many times, the guy was a foot soldier in Cassius's personal retinue; twenty-two years of age, hailing from a far-flung and barely populated province. He was often used as a courier by his master; people didn't interfere with men of his build when he took to the highways by himself.
The man turned with a last leisurely look at the moon and moved a step towards Darius, who clutched his knife. The giant looked down as if something in that step had caught his attention. He went down on one knee and reached for his sandal strap. But only one hand touched it; the other hand was flat on the grass, the gesture of fealty. The eyes beneath thick bangs met Darius's amongst the interlaced branches of the bush.
"My real name is Rand. I served your father from the shadows. You never saw me without a mask, young prince, but I have seen you many times, and I have been watching you this past year, you and my king...I wasn't sure how to approach him."
Darius's instincts, keen as a blade after a year in this harsh world, prickled and wondered if what Rand had been unsure of was Leyam himself, rather than the approach to take. Leyam was fully into the role of Cassius's apprentice, and most were deceived.
He said nothing, waiting. Rand's lips twitched into a dour smile. "You have some promise. I don't think this trade is yours, my Lord of the Kennels, but I will teach you enough of it to stay alive when Cassius finally decides your entertainment value is not enough to keep you alive, not if he can make your death look like an accident. In exchange, I want you to take a message to your brother next time you have one of your, ah, secret meetings."
A wave of alarm tightened Darius's hand on his knife's hilt...though he also felt faintly ticked off at the indulgent tone that reduced his and Leyam's precautions in seeing each other to a children's game of Hide. "The only thing I do when I meet my brother is complain about his uncle," he finally said, still within the bushes in case he needed to make a run for it. "And then he mocks me and tries to get me to admit I'm jealous of his palace life when I live in a kennel. I wouldn't go see the prick at all if he didn't give me his leftover meals."
"An almost believable lie for someone who has not watched the two of you grow up together," said Rand gently. Then he stood and turned around. "I'm glad to see you can dissemble when you have to. Fine, you will not bring a message to your brother. Very wise, it could be a trap. You will not tell him that King Narseh-Allit's former strangler, Pyon, is dead, but that Pyon's younger brother survived the cull and has infiltrated Cassius's guard. You will definitely not tell him that I am keeping an eye out on who in the noble families are working with Cassius, and who are merely being threatened into obedience instead, and above all do not mention that I am at his service as long as the Fates gives me life to defend him and his throne. Make sure you don't tell him any of that," he said, sitting down once more to watch the moon over the Taibor far below.
"If you're our servant, are you supposed to talk to me like that?" Darius finally had to ask. Though he'd often been at the receiving end of harsh words and actions, there'd always been a kind of begrudging regard behind it, even from those who hated him and wanted to belittle him; regards for his bastard parentage, for his promising strength, his abilities or his looks. He'd never been teased like a little kid before.
Rand did the silent laughter again. "If you manage to become the fearsome warrior you obviously aspire to be, young Darius Bher Polenius, then that day I will speak to you as politely as I would a great lord. Run off now, and don't try to kill anyone until you've decided to trust me and let me teach you how. Or at least do not sneak up on them from upwind when you live where you've been living this past year. Good night."
Muttering childish imprecations, Darius ran off.
Darius was thirteen, striding across the courtyard in the light armor of a courier. The reinforced tunic added harsh lines to a young body that was already shaping into a weapon. He was carrying his helmet under one arm, the sun falling on short dark hair with a faint curl. Many men and women turned to watch him pass, and he didn't even notice.
Leyam was with Cassius amongst the colonnades, out of Darius's line of sight. Cassius had grown soft in the last four years, pudgy and ill as heavy responsibilities along with his various vices caught up with him. His gaze followed the boy-man striding under the sunshine like one of the gods Cassius professed to no longer believe in.
"Strike me blind, Leyam, is that your brother?"
"Oh, that's right, you haven't seen him in almost a year," said Leyam disaffectedly, lifting the wine cup which a well-bribed slave pretended to fill much more often than it actually was.
"Hmm, no, I haven't. Damn those rebellious provinces, keeping me from the charms of Sura, hmm?" He'd picked up that oily hmmm along with a few pounds of extra flesh and red veins around his nose. "Darius."
The young man continued to walk as if he'd not heard anyone call out his name.
Cassius lost the smile. "Darius." There was a warning in his tone.
Before it could become an order, with a need of reprisals dictated by the presence of watching courtiers, Leyam called out: "Ghan."
Darius stopped and turned.
"Oh, that's right." Cassius walked towards him, smiling once more. Leyam trailed him. "That's right, it's Ghan. You've grown up well; the kennel must suit you."
Darius said nothing. He was looking at Leyam as if waiting for an order.
"So, Ghan," said Cassius, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder. Darius was only a couple of inches shorter than he was now. "We were discussing sending your brother to blessed Roma Praetorium after this year's flood; it's high time and more. Tell me, would you be interested in going too? You could, hmm, learn a lot."
Slowly Darius looked down at the hand on his shoulder. Then his lips twitched back, a jagged expression revealing eyeteeth. Cassius instinctively snatched his hand away from that ugly, feral expression that would befit a wolf better than a man.
Darius's eyes lifted to Cassius's. "Woof," he said. Then he turned and walked away.
Cassius stared after him. "Leyam, is your brother insane? Does he realize-"
"You raised him in a kennel, Cassius."
"Uncle," corrected Cassius automatically, still staring after Darius.
"So yes, I'm afraid he is a little unhinged, but he's so amusing. I love him dearly." Leyam emptied his cup with a graceful gesture. "I have him sit at my feet some evenings and scratch his fleas. Don't worry, he doesn't bite anymore. I whipped that out of him eventually. Shall we go on inside?" he added as his uncle stared at him, halfway between suspicious and reluctantly impressed. "This heat and sun are doing nothing for my complexion."
An adult Darius idly swished the waist-deep water of the bath around him, looking up without really seeing the mosaic of an unrealistic dolphin near the ceiling.
"It was shortly after that that the regent tried to have me killed again. It was the third time, though this attempt was actually serious. Two stranglers, not just a soldier who'd been given a jug of strong liquor and a hint. I didn't need Rand's help to dispatch them that time, though. But that was the beginning of the end; things couldn't go on that way. It was time to cast our fate in front of the gods.
"Six months later, he was dead." Darius's smile full of fangs was the one he'd showed 'uncle' Cassius. "Leyam killed him and I threw his body to the dogs."
That ugly expression hitched and crumbled when Ryou, who'd come up behind him, slipped his arms around him and rested his forehead on Darius's shoulder.
"Feh, did I sound that pitiful?" Darius sneered. "Save your tender sympathies, Inlander; we fought a losing war with the weapons we had, we turned all the tables and took our revenge. That's to celebrate more than anything. You can let go." He shrugged his shoulders, but Ryou held on and didn't say anything.
After a few moments, Darius's frame loosened. He didn't speak, but he leaned his head against Ryou's and put his arm along the one holding him around the waist. "Well," he muttered and didn't add anything, but there was a whole sentence in that one word. Ryou held him tighter.
Finally Darius shook himself and patted Ryou's arm. "If you're going to embrace me like this, maybe we can do something more interesting than taking a bath."
Ryou snorted, letting Darius draw away and grope Ryou good-naturedly in passing as he made his way to the edge of the baths.
"After that, it was a mess again. The pro-Alliance camp and the pro-Roman camp fought for control over the weak, wastrel King. They didn't realize Leyam was a poison in their midst. With Rand's help, he'd discreetly pruned Cassius's side over the years, leaving the truly vicious and stupid ones alone but killing the moderates and the smarter ones. And those he knew he could trust - because Cassius had not - he showed them the truth. Or rather, some of it. My brother has as many plots and layers as he has dresses, and he loves them all despite what you might think. 'Keep them guessing' is his first plan of attack and his best defense, and he sure does enjoy it. He wields it as well as I wield a sword, yet as carefully as I use my shield, too. Even at his worst, he always keeps the aura of Kings about him; royal excess is eccentricity, he says, it's awe-inspiring if done well. Just look at the king before our grandfather who'd flay people he didn't like and drape their skins before his throne. The halls must have stunk like a charnel house, but I bet nobody said anything. So yeah, those whom he trusted...they knew the truth. They learned what his plans were, what he'd done to get that far already, and hell, if that wasn't enough to impress them, they hated the Romans like poison and didn't need an excuse to oppose them. Six months after Cassius was sent to Hades, a lot of his friends had followed him. The others broke and ran to the provinces and Imperial-controlled city states, and we've been at war in stages ever since. Leyam's plan kept reaping benefits. They had a hard time taking him seriously; they let him pick them off one by one while they desperately searched for the power behind the throne that was directing this young King so ably. Even now, our enemies don't know just how crazy he is or which way he'll jump. It's funny, isn't it? They fear him more than if he wielded armor and spear and draped skins around the Hall."
Darius hauled himself out of the bath, padded across the tiles and reached for a towel.
"So my brother was raised in danger and depravity while I was raised in a kennel, and for good and bad, that's all you need to learn about us to know us, Ujiie Ryou. Well, now I've got to go and get the men sorted out in the barracks, and Inder cudgel me, I've got to make sure they released Dela and that he's okay. Just stay here and recover from the road, I'll send someone to fetch you and show you to your quarters, okay?"
"Okay," said Ryou. He'd have been happier going with Darius, even if it was to the quartermaster and then to jail to free Dela, but from the way Darius was briskly drying off and not looking fully in Ryou's direction, his lover needed a little space after that tale that'd revealed so much about the two Princes of Assyria.