The sun beat down relentlessly, as it always did these days, as the men marched across the sands. And marched, and marched, and marched. None complained. Each man bred for battle, they’d trained under worse conditions. They’d learned to ignore heat and cold and pain. They’d learned to worry only about their enemy, to work thousands of men into a single unit. To accept nothing but victory or death.
For a man of eighteen years, Vasilios had been in more than his fair share of battles — each one he’d come back from with his shield, and often a new scar. But each had been a success. If he looked to either side of or behind himself, he knew he would see the faces of his age mates from the Agoge; not a single one missing.
None had such a divine protection as those who marched under the command of Alexander of Macedon.
Any who were missing were no great loss, anyway, Vasilios mused. Any who succumbed to wounds inflicted by an enemy of lesser skill were too weak to be of any use, and none of their enemies to date had been able to dole a beautiful death.
But this … perhaps this march would prove worthy.
Now Alexander’s army marched against the Persians in Egypt. Vasilios, like his fellow soldiers, had heard the tales of the Spartan king Leonidas and his stand with 300 warriors in the Hot Gates. They all knew how the 300 had died rather than surrender to Xerxes and the largest army the world had ever seen gathered. All Spartans wished, somewhere in their heart of hearts, that they’d been born just a little earlier, to take part in that great stand.
Perhaps, Vasilios allowed himself to hope, they were headed towards their own great stand. Perhaps he could find his beautiful death.
The Persians had grown too bold and too drunk with their own success. Their negligence had led to the retaking of many cities by small groups of leaderless rabble — groups that should hardly have been an issue. The Persian Empire was no longer worthy of its name. Alexander sought to make that territory his own, to put the Greeks in the books of history for all the world to know.
And Vasilios, like all his fellow Spartans, stood in the front lines, intermingled with Alexander’s Macedonians. Let the Athenians stay on their boats. They couldn’t truly appreciate the way a good battle got the blood roaring.
Though Vasilios could ignore the sands and the heat, the vista as a whole was a sight. Endless dunes and waves and valleys, always shifting with the winds. The sky was as blue and cloudless as Vasilios had ever seen it. And all stretched forever. Sometimes he wondered it they might not walk off the earth, for certainly this desolate place must have been the end of it.
They reached the base of great dune hills, and from the front, the King called a halt. The Spartans stopped as one man, lined perfectly with one another. Even the Macedonians had learned how to move with them, while walking, at least. From behind, Vasilios could hear the lesser commanders calling halt back to their men. The King conferred with his generals, then they began to ride up the dunes. They came back mere minutes later, still conferring quietly with each other.
“Over these dunes lies our enemy. Darius cools his heels in his palace. Too long the Persians have sat drunk on their power — now we will see if they have even placed a guard on the walls. We could reach them by night fall, if we walked on without stopping to eat or rest. Not such a bad proposition, really.”
The generals chuckled. Vasilios was never gladder of his position in the line than at this moment. The King sighed.
“Alas, but we have need of our men alive. We’ll make it to within clear sight of the walls, then make camp. See if our friend Darius comes out to greet us.” He turned back towards the army. “Forward!”
The resounding cry of acknowledgment rose from the front lines. Farther behind, the men waited for their orders and instructions to reach them. Shortly enough their cries rang out. Vasilios grinned ferally. The King gave the signal, and they began to move forward once more.
Ineb-Hedj was quiet as night began to fall, bringing relief from the still, hot air of the day. People hurried through the streets outside of the Temple complex, trying to get home, or to a friend’s home before the light totally faded. The lamplighters wouldn’t come out into the city for nearly an hour more. The Temple lighters had already begun lighting the streets, and the pace of those inside was far more sedate.
Nakia watched from the balcony of his bedroom, as he always did, watching the glow of lamps beginning to spread from house to house. He could hear his single servant in the outer rooms, lighting the lamps in his own home. Soon the youngest disciples would come for him, and he would make his way to the Inner Sanctum of the Temple, to offer the evening meal to Ptah and Osiris. But for now he was content to watch the last night of the Persian rule. The Emperor and would-be Pharaoh might call him what he pleased, but Nakia did not lie.
Change was coming.
War was coming.
And the Persian power would not withstand it.
A knock on his door brought Nakia in from his balcony. “Come.”
Three young men entered silently. His servant slipped away to attend to the lamps in his bedroom. The other two waited at the door for him. They never once looked up. Nakia pulled his cowl more snugly about his shoulders. He was used to such treatment, but sometimes it still stung.
The High Priest glanced back at his table, at the scroll lying half open with the strange writing on it. Letters of a sort he’d never seen before and couldn’t read faded into hieroglyphs that spelled words, which made no sense. The worst part was that he’d written it, he remembered writing it, and that made it important. To the disciples, however, it made him frightening.
Nakia gathered his cape and flung it haphazardly over his shoulders. “We go.”
No sooner had he said it than his servant came rushing back to his door. “Kher heb!”
The young man slid into the room. “His Lord Fineas requests your presence.”
“At his home?”
“At your door. He is here.”
Nakia moved with a speed reserved for important occasions and emergencies. The disciples he could hear running after him. The Minister would have saved such a request for after the completion of the rites if it weren’t important. Fineas stood in his entry way impatiently, and looked up when the lector priest arrived. Only then did he pull off his hood.
The Head Healer and Minister’s face was grim. “I have heard from many sources that you attempted to scare the Pharaoh by predicting his demise.”
Nakia suddenly felt cold. “They come tonight?”
“I believe so,” Fineas said. “A young guard saw Greeks marching towards us, though they stopped without making any sort of attack. Alexander is believed to lead them. The Persians are in a panic; none know what they should do. Darius has mustered all forces on pain of death should a man not report, and rides out to meet them. Ineb-Hedj may burn.”
In the back of his mind, Nakia felt the niggling — the vaguely nauseating pressure that happened when one of the Gods meant to warn him of his duty. The deaths to come would require his presence. But the walls … Nakia shook his head slowly.
“No. They will not attack tonight. Ineb-Hedj will not burn. Alexander does not like to destroy his lands before he has conquered them. He will meet the Persians outside the walls.” He blew out a slow breath. “I must still attend the Temple. Ptah will not go unattended.”
“I will escort you to the first pylon,” Fineas said immediately. “I fear we will both be needed tomorrow. You should stay with me tonight, in case this battle does not go well.”
Nakia offered a small smile. Sometimes his friend could be quite transparent, but then, the priest supposed, nobody wanted to be alone on a night when they might not see tomorrow.
“As you will.”
The army stopped within clear sight of the walls, as promised. Camp was set efficiently. Vasilios was put on the first guard duty. He didn’t think that the Persians were so bold, or smart, as to attack at night, but one could never be certain. Privately he decided that he was on guard to spot a potential threat of sand storm more than anything else. He didn’t mind. He enjoyed the solitary time.
This place of sands had a sort of cruel yet majestic beauty. They could so easily kill, yet they were so fragile, yet they were ever renewed by the winds. It was fascinating in its own way. Looking back, Vasilios couldn’t even see the newly made footprints. A stiff wind blew and sent the hairs on his body raising in natural reaction. His guard mate Lykaios grinned.
“How can a place so blazing and bright during the day be so dark and cold at night, do you think? I can’t think of anything like it.”
Vasilios shrugged and asked blandly, “Perhaps because there is nothing like it in the homelands?”
Lykaios laughed. Vasilios allowed himself a crooked grin.
“I just hope we don’t see the rising sands,” his friend said.
Vasilios peered out into the dark. The stars began to show overhead, and he looked up. Suddenly he felt as if he were detached from his body. Though he was used to ignoring climate change, now he could feel nothing. He was aware only of a low, soft, melodic voice chanting gibberish. A language that belonged to nobody in the army and a voice that belonged to the air. Just as suddenly, he was back in himself. He shifted uneasily and drew his cloak about his shoulders.
“What is it?” Lykaios asked. “Cold feet?”
“No,” Vasilios said faintly. “Something far stranger. Something … ” He shook his head. “The sound of the haunted sands, most likely. Perhaps we should seek the priests tomorrow, to be on the safe side. These foreign gods may not yet realize our intent.”
Lykaios, thankfully, let it go at that.
The day dawned bright and hot and immediate. Nakia was up with the sun as always, listening to the voices of the many priests intoning the hymn. He washed himself quickly and prepared to go into the inner sanctum of the temple to prepare Ptah’s morning meal. Fineas waited for him outside the pylons.
The inner sanctum was dim and cool, a blessed relief from the day. The younger priests had already left the trays of food for Nakia to take to the god. The High Priest made his way silently to the sanctuary and opened the door. Ptah’s image waited for him within, waiting for his soul to be returned so he could assume an earthly shape. The ritual prayer fell from Nakia’s lips, years of practice making the words a second nature. The lector priest went through the motions of feeding and dressing the image, repeating the prayer as he did so. He was applying cosmetics to Ptah’s face when he stopped dead, feeling his very soul freeze.
The voice was deep and quiet, always with that hint of sorrow. Nakia couldn’t move. He didn’t have to see to know who stood behind him. Rather, to know the presence that waited behind him. Only Anubis of the underworld brought such cold. Only Anubis spoke to him directly.
Little priest. The Greek Alexander leads his men against the Persians this morning.
“I have heard,” Nakia whispered.
Then you know your duty will be hard. Many Egyptians will die in battle, following Darius, their Emperor.
“I have never accepted him. But for his men, I will pray.”
The souls to cross will be many, but you will Send them all to me. I will Judge them.
“As you will it.”
… Little priest. The city will not fall.
The presence evaporated behind him, and Nakia could move again. He leaned against the image of Ptah briefly, than remembered where he was and what he was meant to be doing. Apologizing repeatedly to the god, Nakia finished applying the cosmetics with trembling fingers. He placed the food in front of the image and waited for the god to finish eating.
He was still shaking when he emerged from the sanctuary and resealed the door.
“Nakia!” Fineas’s voice shouted. “Nakia! What holds you? Alexander attacks Ineb-Hedj!”
Nakia turned around. The priests and scribes and citizens ran thither and yon, every which way, some screaming and some crying in fear. The sounds of battle reached his ears then, the screams of the wounded and dying and battle cries. He would have to use his own power to Send so many souls to Anubis, he knew. Intermediaries wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the Bridge for that long.
Strange how detached he felt from the panic.
Fineas came running towards the inner door, though even war couldn’t make him disturb the sanctuary grounds. He stopped, leaning heavily on the door-frame.
The High Priest joined him. “We wait here. Ineb-Hedj will not fall, because the Greek is not here for destruction. He is here for Darius. Our duty comes later; we should wait for him at the palace. You may need to crown a new Pharaoh before night fall.”
It was shortly after the apex of the sun’s rise that the triumphant Greeks came riding into Ineb-Hedj. Curious Egyptians peered out of every door and window and off of every roof to see the men march. Nobles and priests lined the streets and steps up to the palace on either side, waiting tensely. None were foolish enough to think Alexander would simply turn their land back to them. The Persian guard who hadn’t been killed by the Greeks had either fled or been subdued by angry Egyptians. None particularly mourned the loss of the Persian Pharaoh.
Nakia and Fineas stood at the head of the stairs, watching the victorious parade with matching blank stares. Years of practice had honed their abilities to hide their feelings, no matter which way they leaned. As the army approached, a line of ten men who were clearly the leaders of the army pulled away, and the body of men dropped back behind them. The generals, or Nakia assumed they were, dismounted at the foot of the steps as one, and made the climb up.
One man moved with confidence at the front of the group, the generals forming wings of two men to either side and behind him. The man in front stopped at the top step, and the generals stopped on their steps behind him. None said anything. Fineas nudged his friend’s foot. Nakia searched the faces of the Greeks quickly and came to a stop on a man standing on the third step to his right.
“You would have your general killed in your place, Great Alexander?” he asked.
There was silence. Then the man laughed. He came forward and sketched a bow. “Unless I missed my guess entirely, Hephaestion was hardly in danger.”
Hephaestion shot the King a look that Nakia read as subtle amusement and mild exasperation. Alexander saw it, but brushed it aside with a flick of his head and a shrug. Nakia watched the exchange with interest. Apparently they knew each other well.
Fineas inclined his head, curiously, and asked, “An insult?”
“A compliment. Darius has turned his tail and fled to his capital. You stand before me with no fear or anger in your eyes. This says to me you will wait and we may speak rationally.”
“Speak we may, and will, but not in this heat. Come inside,” Fineas said. He stepped back and extended one hand towards the magnificent doors. “We will see you and your men are fed if you wish, but we have no place yet to put them.”
Alexander turned back towards his generals, and held a brief conference with them. Their voices were too low for either Fineas or Nakia to hear, but the body language did not read of suspicion or subterfuge. One of the generals bowed and left, trotting back down the steps and to a man whom Nakia assumed was a messenger.
The Macedonian king turned back to them. “Who is the authority, here?”
“For now, I suppose we are.” Fineas sighed. “The former Pharaoh wasn’t much for delegating authority, but we are less than ignorable to our own.”
“We will need your help then, to keep things from falling into disarray until new administration is in place,” the king promised. “And before long Darius will be dead; I will see to that.”
Nakia allowed Fineas to take up the talking as they led the Greeks into the palace. The men entered with a proper amount of respect and looked around with a modicum of interest. Nakia wondered how many wars with how many lands they had seen. He followed a few steps behind Fineas and Alexander, trying to keep his eyes from wandering too far down the Macedonian’s back. The man’s armor did little to hide his better assets.
The one called Hephaestion caught his eye and gave him an appraising once-over. Nakia didn’t blink, or blush. He returned the look with one of his own. The Greek smiled at him, and he nodded cordially.
“… Wouldn’t you say Nakia?” Fineas’s voice broke in.
The High Priest faced his friend and raised an elegant eyebrow.
The Healer smirked. “That the first order of business is to attend the dead.”
Nakia inclined his head. “Of course.”
The scribes and junior priests scrambled to prepare the Opening rites on short notice for so many. Nakia stayed with Alexander and his generals and Fineas, at the King’s request, but he hardly needed to supervise them.
The scroll was brought out from its resting place within the Temple, and Nakia stepped forward to receive it. He paid the surprised noises no heed, his mind already relaxing into that place where everything but the ritual and power fell away. And for this, all his attention would need to be on the sacred words. The bodies of Egyptian and Greek alike were laid out, awaiting the release of their souls. Nakia’s eyes roamed them and he spared a moment to feel sorrow for the families they might have had. Already he could feel the souls stirring restlessly within their prisons — each one anxious to cross to the underworld.
With efficient, practiced movements, Nakia unfurled the scroll and began to read.
The effect was immediate. First there was cold. Then the Bridge appeared at the edge of Nakia’s vision, tremulous at first, then more solid as Anubis’ servants crossed it. Four of them. Each servant moved from one body to another, unlocking them as they passed. The souls rose slowly from their bodies, some moving without hesitation to the bridge, some pausing to look back at what their life had led them to.
Nakia had always hated this part of the ritual. He could feel each move through realities as they crossed over, each movement creating a little shred in his own soul before it sealed again; it was the single most unpleasant sensation he could think of.
And then the High Priest felt a sudden stall, which almost caused his words to falter. Time seemed to slow around him. A servant stopped over a body right in front of Nakia’s platform. It barked loudly and angrily, attracting the attention of the other three to the body it stood over. Nakia stopped speaking altogether.
That body wasn’t dead.
The servants barked at each other; one tried to force the body to unlock. The pain was like nothing Nakia had ever felt before.
That body was alive.
That soul couldn’t be Sent.
If he stopped the ceremony for one body, the backlash of power and carried over anger would be unimaginable. If he continued, he killed a man who was not meant to die.
He is not yours, Anubis!
The servants had to be called off.
Leave him here, Anubis. He is still alive.
The cold froze Nakia to his bones, worse than he’d ever felt it.
You challenge my right, little priest?
I would not if the body was dead. But he may still live.
Perhaps I have claimed him anyway.
You said nothing.
He is dying.
He can be saved.
You will be in my debt.
I have been in your debt since you first came to me.
The servants had stopped trying to force the soul from the man’s body, at least. They waited, caught by their master’s indecision. Relief swept through Nakia for a moment, before giving way to the cold once more. The god took his time to consider. Then, finally:
He will not die today. If you can save him.
And the cold gave way a little. Just enough that the High Priest could feel his extremities again, could force his mouth to move again and read the words he knew by heart. In front of him, the man who almost died moved his lips. The servants moved on to the rest of the bodies and unlocked them with no problems. The souls, angered at the wait, rushed the Bridge as one, and this time Nakia thought he was surely going to pass out from the pain. Somehow he kept going.
The last words of the rite were coming up.
The man’s eyes opened to reveal slivers of the lightest brown color.
Anubis’s servants crossed back over the Bridge. Nakia read the last words, closing it. He fell to his knees, and was caught by strong arms before he pitched over onto his face.
“Don’t call … that,” he muttered.
He couldn’t concentrate on the next question. The not-dead man’s soul was wailing in frustration. Why? He had to connect. The man had to live.
“Him. There. Alive.”
“Nakia? Who is alive?”
Who had he been talking to, anyway? Nakia’s eyes closed, the effort of speaking draining him. His mind’s eye could see the angry … no, that was too strong. The annoyed presence. Hard. Annoyed. Not-dead man.
I should be dead.
You were still alive.
I was dying.
You weren’t dead.
Let me go.
Anubis wouldn’t have you.
You bind me here against my will.
You can take it up with the god. He left you to me. Nakia reached out and pushed. Now, go back!
The soldier’s presence, startled by the force and insistence and power behind Nakia’s command, automatically stepped back. He stepped right into his body and fell. And fell, and fell, and fell.
And suddenly Vasilios opened his eyes and gasped raggedly, trying to force air into his starved lungs. His limbs felt like lead. His head felt like it had been stuffed with sand. His ears felt like they were stuffed with linen. His eyes burned in the fading sun when he opened them.
Where was he?
Muffled sounds that sounded like panic reached him. But the battle was over, and Alexander had emerged victorious. What were they worried about? Vasilios tried to look around, and managed to roll his head to the side. There was pain in his side. Somehow he put his fingers to the place, and they came away sticky. Then he remembered.
He’d been surrounded. One had got in a lucky stab. He had nearly died. He had seen the Bridge, but he hadn’t been allowed to cross. There had been arguing, and power, and cold. Then the Soft had pushed him back.
Where was the Soft?
“Vasilios! By Zeus! Lykaios, look! Vasilios is moving!”
There were voices coming towards him, voices he knew, and feet and legs and blurry
faces that he couldn’t make focus. Hands and arms propped him up, put pressure on the bleeding. They were sure and calloused hands. Not Soft.
“By the gods, you old cat! You were dead!”
Lykaios’s voice. Friendly voice. Wrong voice. He was being picked up and slung over shoulders and moved.
“Healer! Our friend needs attention!”
Why couldn’t he walk properly? Right, he was injured. Where was he being taken? Right, Healer. Or he might really die. And that would make the Soft angry. The Healer was glaring and barking at them, though. Why was he glaring?
Something tingled in the back of Vasilios’s mind. He turned towards the source. Or, rather, rolled his head around a bit until his eyes fixed on head of black hair and colored beads, the face turned away from him. It was nestled protectively in the Healer’s lap. Vasilios’s glazed eyes stared at the hair for a while. The niggling got stronger. The hair looked soft …
“Soft? What? Vasilios, stay with us now.”
Lykaios again. Not the Soft. The Soft chanted and had a low and soft voice. He had listened to that voice. He’d been forced back by that voice.
Okay. I’m alive. I’m awake. Now it’s your turn.
The head stirred, face moving into view and eyes fluttering open. The Healer holding the Soft shook him by the shoulders. Vasilios frowned. Why was the Healer angry?
No. Worried. Nakia? Soft, Vasilios confirmed.
Eyes of grey met his own — strange color. The Nakia-Soft smirked. Vasilios offered a faint smile in return.
And promptly passed out.
Nakia opened his eyes slowly, unsure what time of day or night it was. The ceiling was his own, so he’d been moved to his home. The lamps in his room had been lit, so it was nighttime, but they’d been placed rather far away from him and the light was dim. He was thankful for that. His head pounded enough as it was. He moved his eyes slowly to the left. Fineas sat in a chair by his bed, reading. The older man’s eyes were dark and shadowed, but Nakia couldn’t be sure if that was the light or lack of sleep. His face was set in worry and anger. The High Priest shifted, moving the covers enough to make noise.
Fineas looked up immediately, and their eyes locked. Then the older man looked down, his jaw clenching.
“You’re awake,” he said tersely. “Good.”
“… What time is it?”
The Healer turned a page, fuming and trying not to show it. “What time? What day. You have been asleep for five days following whatever trick you tried during the rite for the Greek. It is nearly the sixth. He hasn’t woken up yet, by the way.”
Nakia turned to stare up at his ceiling again. “Oh.”
The High Priest shrugged. “He will wake soon.”
“I don’t care about when he wakes! What did you think you were doing? Challenging Anubis for a Greek’s life?”
“He wasn’t dead. I couldn’t kill him.”
“At the cost of your own?”
“I’m not dead.”
“You might be!” Fineas exclaimed, throwing an arm out in exasperation.
Nakia shrugged uncomfortably. He sat up slowly. Or tried to. Despite Fineas’s annoyance with him, the older man came to help him sit up and offer him wine. The High Priest leaned heavily against his friend as he drank, feeling warmth seep into him. Fineas set the cup down and wrapped Nakia in his arms, hands sweeping over the younger man’s body, as though making sure the High Priest was real.
“I am sorry,” Nakia murmured. “I don’t know what I did, myself.”
“Scared the life out of me?”
That drew a wince. He hadn’t even thought about what challenging Anubis would do to him, or what seeing him like that would do to Fineas.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
Fineas drew the smaller man closer to him. “Don’t do it again.”
Nakia allowed himself to lean in. “I certainly won’t be trying it anytime soon. I missed too much this time.”
“Ah, yes. You missed the crowning of Alexander. He has left, by the way. He was very anxious to find Darius and end the campaign against him. A proxy has been left behind — he seems sensible enough. Perhaps he will better know what to do with a Spartan.”
Spartan? Nakia frowned a little. He’d heard of the Spartans, of course. It explained why the man was so adamant to be allowed to Cross. He would have wanted to die in battle. The High Priest felt a vague guilt, but Anubis wouldn’t have allowed the man to live if he hadn’t been needed.
Fineas opened his mouth in preparation to say something more, but he was cut off by a knock at the door. Nakia turned to look at it automatically, and noticed it had been propped open. His servant stuck his head in after a perfunctory moment. Fineas didn’t raise an eyebrow. Apparently he hadn’t been bothered with propriety while Nakia was sleeping.
“Lord Fineas, the Greek is — Master!” the young man bowed deeply but quickly, something like real relief on his face. “I’m glad to see you awake at last! Master, Lord Fineas, the Greek is awake again. He is asking for something, but I do not understand his language.”
Fineas gave a long-suffering sigh. “He is asking for you.”
“You know this?”
“Sometimes he would half wake, and he would ask for you. But I see no reason why it should be different now.”
“Why should he ask for me?”
“Kher heb? If he is asking for you, will you see him?”
“Yes, ” Nakia said, “and you may retire for the day.”
The young man bowed and backed out of the room. The High Priest looked at Fineas expectantly. Fineas stared back at Nakia. Finally he sighed and helped Nakia out of the bed, allowing the younger man to stand on his own. By unspoken consent, the High Priest leaned against his friend and let Fineas support him as they walked slowly out of his bedroom.
“He was asking for me?”
Fineas sighed. “I assumed so; I couldn’t think of another Soft.”
“He called for Soft? ”
“That was the word.”
The High Priest snorted. “How often was this?”
“The few times I checked on him.”
Nakia arched an eyebrow. “Few times? And what if he needed your assistance?”
“I was more concerned for you. He’d half woken at least and you hadn’t, and his state was much like yours is now. Besides, the Greek is in superb physical condition.”
That earned the older man a prod. “Are you suggesting something about me?”
“Yes: that you are hardly a Spartan soldier. He was made for fighting and the spare room is clean enough.”
Nakia made a non-committal noise. The spare room was hardly ever used, and though Fineas was unfairly laying the blame for Nakia’s actions on the soldier, he knew that Fineas would not allow someone under his care to be put into danger — even if he didn’t want that someone to be under his care. They reached the spare room surprisingly quickly considering how Nakia’s legs trembled when he put weight on them. The Healer helped Nakia to stand on his own, and opened the doors for him. Nakia spared a moment to be silently thankful, because he didn’t know that he could have done it himself.
“I will wait just outside,” Fineas murmured.
The lamps in the room had been lit, and it had been furnished just enough to be a functional bedroom for the soldier. Nakia took a step in. The soldier was standing by the window, leaning perhaps a bit heavily against the wall as he looked out into the night. He didn’t turn around, but Nakia knew the Greek was aware of him. Just like he was aware of the Greek.
“I’m told I have you to thank for my life, Priest.”
The soldier’s voice was like molten warmth, and Nakia wasn’t sure if that was the heat of anger or something else entirely. He’d always felt things a little differently. He closed his eyes and steeled himself against it.
“If you have been told you should thank me, you’ve been told wrong, Soldier. I did nothing.”
“You should have let me die.”
“That was not for me to decide.”
“I was being pulled.”
The soldier was angry. The heat of it washed through him, touching off anger in Nakia’s own body. He’d never felt anything quite as strongly before. Nakia swallowed, drawing his fragmenting concentration back together.
“You were being pulled away by servants of the God, who know to do nothing else during the Opening. But you were not dead. The God ordered them to leave you here.”
His legs were still trembling, probably more violently now that he’d been standing still. His vision swam.
“Of course, ” the soldier said snidely, half-turning towards him. “And you had nothing to do with it.”
It was too hot. Anger was pressing in on him. Nakia closed his eyes. His head throbbed.
“It is not … ” He tried, but his words choked on themselves under the weight of the soldier’s anger. “It. Is not. ” Had the Greek come closer? “It is not. For me. To question… ”
And suddenly Nakia was enveloped in an entirely different kind of warmth. The Greek’s arms wrapped around him, holding him upright, leading him to the bed. The High Priest closed his eyes and settled against the hard body, feeling the other man’s sudden concern wash gently over him as the other man’s hands traced his forehead and cheeks.
“Priest? ” The soldier’s voice shook, almost in fear. Nakia wasn’t quite sure why. “Priest! ”
“What? ” Nakia snapped.
The Greek was silent. Nakia felt confusion and an undercurrent of fear. He opened his eyes and slanted a look up. The soldier stared back at him angrily.
“What have you done to me? ”
“I will keep telling you I have done nothing.”
“You have bound me to your will,” the soldier spat.
“I have bound neither of us. Do to me as you will until you understand that. ”
“As I will? ”
“Yes. As you will. Do it. ”
The soldier stared at him intently. Nakia met his gaze and held it steadily, trying not to let his weariness show. The Greek’s mouth pulled into a grimace, and he leaned down, smashing their lips together. Nakia tensed out of instinct, but forced himself to relax and let it happen. The soldier tore away from him and looked away.
“Your god has bound me to the living when I should be dead. ”
“It is not my place to question the will of the Gods, ” Nakia said, his voice resigned. “Surely you would not question your own? ” He closed his eyes, letting weariness settled over him. His whole being hurt.
The Greek tensed under him. “If it were your own will, would you have kept me here? ”
“If I am placed in front of you again, will you keep me? ”
“No. I will send you over the Bridge. ”
Something settled in the air. Acceptance of the events, perhaps. Nakia wasn’t in a place to interpret it, but the soldier relaxed a little. Not much. But enough. The High Priest relaxed. It was nice here, against the Spartan’s warmth.
Maybe he could just rest for a moment.
When he opened his eyes again, Nakia found that the night had turned into day and that he was still in the spare room. He’d been laid down on the bed and covered lightly with the sheet. His head throbbed less and his body felt less like he’d been stretched thin by stampeding horses. He looked around. The Greek had gone back to the window, and was leaning against it, but this time he faced into the room.
Neither said anything for a while. Finally Nakia looked out the window over the soldier’s shoulder.
“Has it been another day?”
“Just the last hours of night until this morning, ” the man said, offering a tiny smile. “You’ve decided to join us again, I see.”
Nakia shrugged. “Fineas would nag at me if I didn’t.”
“Is that the Healer’s name?”
“He doesn’t like me,” the Greek mused slowly.
“Does that truly bother you?” Nakia asked, raising his eyebrows.
“It makes living here a bit more troublesome.”
“It will be seen to, I’m sure, that you will have your own accommodations,” the slighter man said, swinging his legs experimentally over the edge of the bed. “Alexander left one of his generals behind, to see to administration while he pressed on. Doubtless he will look on you kindly.”
“Because I am a Greek?”
Nakia shrugged. “Should he not favor one of his own?”
The soldier chuckled. “It would depend on the man left behind, Priest. We shall see. ”
“I have a name, ” Nakia said mildly. “You might ask for it.”
“… I might. Last night was not one of my better ones for social niceties. What is your name?”
“Na … kia. Yes. I think I heard that before. At the Rite.”
“And what is your name? ”
The High Priest blanched. How was he supposed to get out such a mouthful? The soldier — Vasilios — actually laughed when he noted Nakia’s ever-so-slightly mournful expression. Nakia marveled at the sound. It was hard not to notice how attractive the man was when he wasn’t angry.
“You’ll have to work on that one.”
Nakia sighed. “Well, I’ll work on it. Has Fineas come by?”
“The Healer? He came in while you slept. He has been called in to resume his duties at the palace, and likely to be delegated new ones. … He wanted to stay.”
The young man smirked. “I’m sure.”
“He doesn’t trust me.”
“He will get over it. He comes by often enough, trying to minimize his time spent at the palace. At least, he did. Perhaps that will change.”
Vasilios took a few steps towards Nakia, almost hesitantly. “After last night, perhaps he has reason not to. ” It was almost a question, and half an apology.
Nakia snorted. “I told you to do as you would. If you had skill to put behind it, it might even have been enjoyable. ”
“So … you aren’t angry with me.”
“As to why.”
“Is there an echo? Why did you choose to kiss me?”
The solider paused, and started, Nakia thought, to turn red. The color was banished quickly, though and Vasilios shrugged. “It was all I could think of to do. I couldn’t raise my hand against you … you looked so … tired. … Why did you let me?”
“You needed it.”
“It’s that simple?”
Nakia shrugged. “Unless you choose for it not to be. I’d already taken you away from death in battle, I wasn’t going to stop you.”
“You felt you owed me something.”
“Something like that.”
“Do you allow everyone you owe something to, to kiss you?”
“And if I did it again? Right now? ” Vasilios asked abruptly. “Would you let it happen?”
“Perhaps, ” the High Priest said, smiling enigmatically. “If you put some work into it, I might even participate.”
The soldier crossed the rest of the room in three paces and cupped the back on Nakia’s head with one hand, twining his fingers into the younger man’s hair. He bent down, and their lips met heatedly. Nakia parted his lips before Vasilios could even think to ask for it, but the soldier needed no second invitations. Their tongues met, caressed, and dueled playfully for dominance. Nakia conceded to the Greek, allowing him to control this encounter.
They parted, panting. Vasilios let go of Nakia’s head in favor of pushing him gently but firmly back. The High Priest fell back obligingly, shifting a bit more length-wise so they wouldn’t be falling off the bed. Vasilios followed the younger man, hand remaining splayed over the younger man’s chest, watching, fascinated, as Nakia’s sleeping tunic rode up his slight torso. Then the Greek climbed onto the bed and straddled Nakia’s hips, letting his hands wander over the bared skin of the younger man’s abdomen. Nakia reached up and pulled on the loose robe that had been provided for the soldier.
“This needs to be off.”
Vasilios chuckled. “How demanding.”
Nakia curved his lips downward in a parody of a pout, and the Greek laughed. He slid his hand under the sleeping tunic, pushing it farther up, baring more smooth skin. The younger man shuddered and arched up when the calloused fingertips trailed playfully over his nipples.
“Va — Vasilios!”
“Oh? I think I’ve found a sensitive area …” the soldier said. He tweaked Nakia’s nipple once and paused to take in the little gasp the younger man made. “Sensitive. What happens if I do this, I wonder?”
Before Nakia could think to ask what Vasilios wondered, the older man bent down and licked a warm, wet trail over his nipple. His teeth scraped gently over it a moment later. Nakia hissed and his torso arched sharply upwards without his consent. The solder’s lips closed around his nipple, engulfing it in warmth. The High Priest could feel himself stiffening. Vasilios chuckled around his mouthful, and his hands wandered over the younger man’s sides, fingers feathering lightly, searching for more sensitive spots. Nakia groaned softly when he found them.
Vasilios stopped exploring with his fingers in favor of gently but firmly placing Nakia’s arms over his head. He pulled up on the tunic, and was rewarded by Nakia squirming to help him get it off. When Nakia’s arms were free, Vasilios threw the bunched up fabric to one side. The High Priest’s hands were on his robe again a moment later.
“Clothing for clothing. This comes off.”
The Greek smirked crookedly, but he didn’t disagree. His hands worked the knotted belt easily, and the robe followed Nakia’s tunic to the floor. The High Priest’s hands were on him before he’d put his arms down, tracing over the ridges of his muscles. Nakia’s were gentle and curious — unlike the dalliances he’d had with other soldiers — but not unsure, and his face was a picture of concentration. His hands moved easily over Vasilios’s body, mapping it. The Greek allowed it to happen, watching Nakia with a bemused smile as the High Priest satisfied himself.
“One might think you’d never seen another body.”
“Never one like yours, ” Nakia murmured, fingertips tracing a scar line.
Vasilios caught Nakia’s hands, brought them to his lips, and kissed the younger man’s palms. Then he grinned, and placed the High Priest’s hands on his groin, one on his erection.
“You can’t tell me this is so different.”
Nakia crooked a smile at the older man. “No. I can’t.” He wrapped his hand around the soldier’s penis, and pulled down from base to tip.
The Greek shivered slightly and bit the inside of his cheek to keep from making a noise. His hips thrust forward automatically to seek more friction. The High Priest licked the palm of his hand and gave Vasilios a few more pulls. When the soldier finally let out a low sigh of satisfaction, Nakia let go. Vasilios made a disgruntled noise deep in his throat, and the High Priest laughed softly. He reached out to the soldier and pulled him down roughly. Their lips met in a deep and almost desperate kiss, tongues meeting and twining. Nakia rolled his hips up, moving against the older man.
“… Oil?” Vasilios murmured against the High Priest’s lips.
“The lamp may have some left.” Nakia traced Vasilios’s bottom lip with his tongue. “And I have no urge to go on a search. ”
The soldier looked at the lamp, calculating the distance. He concluded that he wouldn’t be able to reach it with an annoyed sigh and swung a leg off the bed, leaning on it as he reached forward. Stretching he was just able to dip his fingers into the bowl of oil, wetting them. He settled back over Nakia, who hooked a leg over his waist, and reached down, circling the younger man’s entrance. The High Priest hissed softly and closed his eyes when Vasilios’s finger slid into him, and the older man paused. Nakia shook his head before the soldier could say anything.
“It’s just been a while.”
Vasilios made a noise of understanding. He pulled his finger almost all the way out, then pushed it back in, making small circles. When Nakia moved against him, the Greek added a second finger and scissored them. The High Priest moaned quietly. Vasilios smirked. He twisted his fingers and pushed them in farther, searching the hot passage.
Nakia gave a surprised cry, his eyes flying open and his torso arching up sharply.
“Did I find it?” the soldier asked, smugness in his voice.
The younger man glared at him through half-lidded eyes.
“I’d say I did.” Vasilios grinned. He pulled his fingers out of Nakia, and slicked himself with the last of the oil. He shifted a bit, moving into a better position, and pulled the younger man’s hips up a little more. “Ready? ”
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
Vasilios pressed into Nakia. The High Priest’s eyes closed and his muscles contracted around the older man, tightening against the invasion automatically. The soldier rubbed the small of the other man’s back, still moving forward. Nakia relaxed bit by bit, until Vasilios was sheathed to the balls in him. The Greek paused, watching the younger man’s face for his cue. Finally Nakia slid open grey eyes and locked them with Vasilios.
“Well? Are you going to stay there all day?”
Vasilios couldn’t help it. He laughed. He pulled out, nearly to the head of his penis, and pushed back in. When he pulled out the second time, Nakia’s hips pushed back to meet him. They moved together at a pace just short of rough, each trying not to make a sound. Nakia locked his ankles around the soldier’s waist, changing the angle and bringing Vasilios back to the spot which had made him cry out. Vasilios brought their lips together, allowing himself to moan into the younger man’s mouth. Following Nakia’s earlier action, he licked the palm of his hand and gripped the High Priest’s erection. The younger man tried to arch up and push back against Vasilios at the same time, not knowing which sensation to seek more of. The soldier chuckled. Nakia gave Vasilios a wicked look, and locked his knees so that the older man couldn’t move very much. He tightened around the hardness inside him, enjoying the low, strangled moan it produced.
“Going to play like that, are we ”
Vasilios snickered quietly. His forehead dropped to Nakia’s shoulder, his lips and tongue seeking the younger man’s skin, licking away the sweat. He pumped Nakia’s erection, slowly and methodically, feeling the High Priest shudder against him. His tongue dipped and ran along Nakia’s collar bone, and up to his jugular. He sucked on the pulse there, racing against his lips faster and faster, until the younger man was breathing heavily and gasping, and his legs loosened their hold.
Vasilios gave a snap of his hips, barely giving Nakia time to realize that he’d moved. He kept up that pace, as quickly as he could for as long as he could. The High Priest moved against him, tightening rhythmically, the teasing over. The soldier’s thrusts became weaker and less precise as orgasm approached, and he could feel the tightening in Nakia’s balls against his hand. He sped the movements with his hand, clenching his fist a little tighter around the younger man. Finally Nakia’s body coiled tightly against him and around him, and the High Priest climaxed with a whisper that sounded like Vasilios’s name on his lips. The Greek managed a few more thrusts into the tight heat and came with a low groan.
They collapsed back onto the bed, neither really willing to move. It took a while before the soldier felt Nakia stirring under him, and he found the strength to pull out of the younger man’s body. He fell on his side, facing the High Priest, and watched Nakia breathe for a while, taking in the deceptively slender body as it panted for air. Nakia’s eyes closed as he got himself back under control. One hand moved, fingers trailing up his thigh and through a splatter of his come. He wiped it off on the bed.
“… I’ll have your sheets changed.”
The comment was so inane, so unexpected, that Vasilios couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled up in his throat. Nakia smiled faintly, a short laugh making an appearance. They lapsed back into a comfortable silence, until something from earlier nagged at the soldier. He bit his lip. He felt good right now. He liked the level of comfort between them. He liked the silence. But …
“You said it was your god, ” Vasilios said quietly.
The High Priest blinked. “Mmm?”
“Earlier. You said you owed me something because you took me away from death, but before then you insisted it was your god.”
Nakia rolled over and propped himself up with arm. His face was serious, more so than it had been during any of their acquaintance. Vasilios decided he liked Nakia’s smile better.
“It was. But I still acted to help him. As the High Priest, had I known what you wanted, I could have pled your case. Once he made his decision, I could do nothing else.”
The soldier glanced away and offered an awkward half shrug. “It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not angry about it. You promised to send me when my time does come and your god will have me, so I’ll hold you to your word. Until then … you may be forced to deal with me longer than you thought. ”
Nakia smiled again. “I suppose I can live with that.”
A note: Ineb-hedj was the real name of Memphis, and Kher-heb was the title for the High Priest.