"How many today?" Iphicles demanded, dreading the answer.
The acolyte's grim, exhausted face and red-rimmed eyes did nothing to reassure him. "Twelve new patients since sunrise, Your Highness. Nine dead since last night."
Iphicles closed his eyes and turned away from the boy's gaze, fighting to maintain a stoic expression despite the dull ache in his gut and the bitter taste in his mouth. This was what kings did in times of disaster, wasn't it? They were stoic and dignified and brave.
"I'll go see them now."
There was a brief rustle of movement behind him, rasp of leather and clink of metal. Iphicles ignored the sounds. It was only his bodyguard, Eurytion, expressing his usual wordless disapproval. The two of them had argued several times about Iphicles' insistence on visiting the plague victims. Eurytion, who was grizzled and competent and too earnest by half, strenuously objected to the idea of his king voluntarily facing a peril that could not be fought off with sword and fist. Iphicles understood his concern, but did not waver in his own determination. After all, it wasn't as if any one place was safer than another. A number of the palace residents, both servants and nobility, had already died. And if a few of the sufferers found some strange, inexplicable comfort in having their king hand them a cup of water or wipe their brow as they died... well, it was the least he could do.
Iphicles declined the acolyte's offer to guide them to the abaton. He'd spent more than enough time in Asclepius' temple over the past month to learn his way around. He could remember a time when the temple was a beautiful and serene building, a place of clear light and cool shadows, smoothly polished stone and stained glass. But a month of plague was taking its toll. Debris gathered in corners no one had time to sweep. Dust drifted over surfaces no one could spare the effort to clean. Most of the glass had been broken a week before, when some grief-crazed zealot had started a riot in the Temple District by ranting that the priests of Asclepius had a cure they were selfishly keeping for themselves. Half the windows were boarded up now, sinking the temple into a gloomy twilight. The pleasant herbal smell that usually wafted in from the medicine garden was smothered by the miasma of sickness: sour sweat and vomit and human waste.
The stench became almost unbearable when they entered the abaton. All the beds in the large circular chamber were occupied, with extra pallets laid on the floor for the overflow patients. There was just enough space between the pallets for a single man to walk, provided he was careful about where he put his feet.
Weary-looking priests and acolytes trudged in and out of the room, carrying supplies or tending the patients. They showed no reaction when Iphicles and Eurytion moved in to join them, being well accustomed to their visits. Iphicles took a stack of clean blankets from a teen-aged acolyte who looked ready to drop on her feet, and began to distribute them among the patients. Eurytion, whose silent disapproval never stopped him from being useful, applied himself, without being asked, to the near-unbearable task of emptying the chamber pots and vomit buckets.
Iphicles had intended to spend the entire morning at the temple, but less than an hour passed before one of the junior priests interrupted him in the process of applying a compress to the swollen throat of a six-year-old girl who would probably be dead before sunset.
"Your Highness? Lucia is asking to see you."
"Of course." Iphicles rose to his feet. "Eurytion, take over here, will you?"
Lucia was the High Priestess of Asclepius in Corinth. She had spent the past three days fasting and meditating in the hope that her god would send her a vision of the cure. If she wanted to speak to him now, then she must've gotten some response. For the first time in weeks, Iphicles allowed himself a small glimmer of hope.
The altar room was the only part of the temple that still maintained its pristine appearance. All surfaces were spotless, sunlight filtered through panels of pale turquoise glass, and snow-white lilies in their tall vases scented the air. Lucia herself looked remarkably unrumpled for someone who'd spent three days on her knees, with only bread and water to sustain her. But the look on her face put a quick end to Iphicles' nascent hope for a cure.
"I've received a vision from Asclepius," she said as soon as Iphicles entered, wasting no time on greetings or preliminaries. "He tells me he has no power to end this plague; it was sent by Apollo himself."
Her voice was even, her face composed into placid neutrality. But the accusation in her eyes was clear enough. Iphicles flinched away from that look, wishing he could defend himself, knowing that he couldn't. She was right. He had caused this.
Less than two months had passed since he had shut down his city's great central temple of Apollo, gave the suddenly-unemployed priests funds for passage to Delphi, and announced his decision to honor Ares as the new patron deity of Corinth. The first case of the plague was reported only a few days later. As the epidemic spread, Iphicles had tried to tell himself that it had to be a coincidence. Now he could only wince in shame at his own willful naivete. He, more than anyone else, should've known the futility of trying to defy the gods.
"I see," he muttered in a flat voice, still unable to meet the priestess' eyes. "Thank you, Lucia. I will... I will go back to the palace and consider what to do next." An impotent promise, and they both knew it, but he had to say something. Iphicles lifted one hand in an awkward, utterly non-regal gesture of farewell, and fled the room.
An hour later, alone in his study, Iphicles seriously considered trying to get a message to his brother. Ordinary mortals might not be able to defy the gods, but Hercules, if half the tales going around Greece were true, smacked them around whenever the mood took him. Surely he could take care of Apollo somehow. And the humiliation of having his kingdom bailed out by his little brother yet again would be a small price to pay for the lives saved.
It was Ares that made him hesitate -- or rather, the thought of how Hercules would react to the idea of Corinth being dedicated to Ares. He couldn't even begin to imagine how to explain that one in a letter. Dear Herc, I have a serious problem that I need your help with, but first let me mention that I'm dedicating my kingdom to your worst enemy... He would be furious. No, worse than that. He would be puzzled and hurt, and would want explanations. And Iphicles didn't want to explain, not this. The hurt behind his reasons was too old and entrenched -- and too closely entwined with Hercules' own life -- to allow for easy speech.
He couldn't afford to think this way, though, not when his people were dying by the dozen every day. The plague had to be stopped, one way or another. Iphicles shook his head irritably and reached across the desk for his quill.
A brilliant flash of golden light stopped him in mid-motion. The room suddenly grew warmer, and Iphicles felt a faint buzz all over his skin, like the beginning of a sunburn. He shook his head, blinked tears away from his eyes, and found himself staring across the desk at a smiling, golden face with eyes the color of summer sky.
Iphicles opened his mouth to shout for the Eurytion, who was stationed just outside the door. Instead he found himself frozen, unable to utter a sound. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest, the air flowing in and out of his lungs as he breathed, but the rest of his body seemed turned to stone. He could only watch helplessly as the golden man -- no, not man, god, it could only be a god -- strolled around the desk so stand behind Iphicles' chair.
"Do you have *any* idea how stupid you look right now?" A slim, elegant hand brushed along Iphicles' cheek and under his chin, closing his mouth. "There, that's better. Still stupid, but at least you won't catch any bugs this way."
The god's voice was clear and tuneful as a bell, completely at odds with the snide tone and the childish insults it was uttering. The hand stroking Iphicles' face was unnaturally hot, hotter than human skin could possibly be. It cupped Iphicles' chin in a smooth, uncallused palm, stroking the thumb along his jawline.
"Listen carefully, *mortal*." The voice turned icy with contempt on the last word, without losing its music. The god drew his hand back and circled to the front of the desk to stand in Iphicles' line of sight. He wore soft leather trousers and a vest of shimmery blue silk embroidered in gold at the collar. His hair was gold too, richer than the embroidery thread, falling to his neck in soft waves, each lock perfect and perfectly placed. He was beautiful, but it was the beauty of a statue or a painting rather than a person. Human beings didn't look like that. "I'm going to let you speak and move now. If you want to scream for help, be my guest. But anyone who comes through that door is going to end up a little pile of ashes on the carpet. Understand? Of course you do." He reached across the desk and snapped his fingers in the air above Iphicles' head.
It felt as if a huge, invisible fist had unclenched itself from around Iphicles' body. One moment he was frozen, the next he could move again. He swallowed a couple of times, fighting against the tightness in his throat, before trusting himself to speak.
"Apollo?" He could hear the tremor in his own voice, the effect of anger and fear and -- though it hurt to admit it -- the sheer dizzying power of the god's presence. Part of him wanted to spit into that beautiful face; another part wanted to kneel and worship it.
"Well, what do you know? It's not as stupid as it looks." Apollo sat on the edge of the desk, leaning on one arm to support himself. The pose let his vest fall open, and etched the muscles of his torso into sculpted relief. His chest was broad and perfectly smooth, the edge of one dark-brown nipple peeking out from under the blue silk. And the smirk on Apollo's face indicated he was well aware of his own perfection.
*He looks like some lord's spoiled son trying to seduce a village maiden.* The thought bolstered Iphicles' anger, allowed him to speak with a stronger and steadier voice.
"What do you want?"
The smirk disappeared. "What do I want? You shut down my second-biggest temple in all of Greece, and you have the nerve to sit here and ask me what I want? Did the plague not get the message across? Would you like a drought to go with it?"
The anger was an icy lump in Iphicles' gut. It was hard to breathe around it. "You-- Lucia was right, then. You did send the plague to my city."
"*Your* city?" Apollo planted both hands on the desk and leaned forward until he was almost nose to nose with Iphicles. "Is that what happened? They put a little toy crown on your head and suddenly you think you have power? Think again, mortal. Corinth has belonged to me for three centuries. You can't just get up one morning and hand it over to Ares on a whim."
He sounded for all the world like a bratty child, complaining that someone took a toy away and gave it to his brother. It might've been funny if so many people weren't dead.
Iphicles pushed his chair back a few feet, giving himself enough distance so that he could look Apollo in the eye without craning his neck. It was only an illusion of equality, but he clung to it. He had to. If he allowed himself to feel as powerless as he really was, he'd end up whimpering under the desk.
"Corinth never belonged to you, Apollo. You may have had your temple and your priests and your worshippers, but that's over now. If you don't like it, take it up with Ares."
"Maybe I will." Apollo hopped off the desk and stood facing Iphicles, arms folded across his chest. "Or maybe I'll just sit back and let the plague run its course. I figure, another six months or so, and there will be nothing left within the city walls except the rats eating the corpses." He grinned -- a broad, boyish grin utterly at odds with his words -- and gave Iphicles a wink. "I'll make sure you die last. Wouldn't want you to miss the fun."
Iphicles' mouth went dry. "You can't murder an entire city."
"No? I think I've made a pretty good start."
Iphicles actually rose to his feet and lurched forward a step before common sense kicked in to stop him. He couldn't attack Apollo; the god would squash him like a bug. Which might be worth it if it would stop the plague, but he had no way of assuring that it would. So he stood there, trembling with rage, and tried to think of something useful to do or say. No brilliant plans presented themselves.
"Really, Iphicles." Apollo rolled his eyes. "What did you imagine would happen? Did you think I would just ignore the insult. Or..." He paused, and his grin grew broader. "Were you expecting Ares to protect you, in exchange for a shiny new temple? But no, you couldn't be *that* much of a fool."
It was, in fact, exactly what Iphicles had hoped for. He had not been naive enough to believe that he could go up against Apollo and win, but he'd thought that Ares might consider Corinth a prize worth protecting. So much for that idea.
"It doesn't have to be this way, you know." The words were accompanied by a warm tickle of breath against Iphicles' cheek. He jumped as he realized that Apollo was standing next to him now, one arm draped across Iphicles' shoulders. He hadn't seen the god move. "I can be reasonable. Give me back my temple. Re-dedicate Corinth to me. A few sacrifices, maybe a nice festival in my honor... that's all I ask."
The black, swollen faces of the dead glared accusingly in Iphicles' mind. He wanted to refuse, wanted to say exactly what he thought of Apollo and his vain, petty little power games. But that wasn't an option. He'd tried to take a stand, and failed; what else was new? Time to admit defeat and salvage what lives he could.
"All right. I'll do what you want. Just end this. No more deaths."
"Deal." Apollo grabbed a fistful of Iphicles' shirt and pulled him into a half-turn that ended with god and mortal standing face to face, only inches apart. "Now let's seal this bargain."
The kiss caught Iphicles completely by surprise. Apollo's lips were soft but not gentle, and his mouth gave off the same unnatural heat as his skin, only more so. It was like gulping a mouthful of liquid gold. Iphicles froze, unable to reconcile this turn of events with the conversation that came before. He didn't even notice Apollo pulling away until a sharp slap across the face snapped him back to full awareness.
"If I wanted to fuck a statue," Apollo growled, "I'd go and find one. Let's try this once more with feeling, shall we?"
Iphicles tried to back away, but Apollo's grip on his shirt held him in place. "I-- this isn't part of the bargain."
"Sure it is. I just made it so." Apollo gave a tug, making Iphicles stumble against him. "Don't worry, I promise you'll like it."
Iphicles turned his face away as Apollo leaned in for another kiss. "Melia was right," he muttered, not bothering to hide his disgust. "You *are* a bully and a rapist."
Apollo blinked. He didn't seem especially offended by the accusation, only confused. "Who in Tartarus is Melia?"
"You don't even remember, do you?" Iphicles could only shake his head. "Did you even bother to learn her name?"
Apollo just kept blinking. "I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about."
"Melia. Sixteen years old, small, pretty? Blond hair, blue eyes? You carried her off from the marketplace one morning, as if she was a cheap trinket you took a fancy to. Her brother went looking for her, and you killed him."
"Oh, right. That one." Apollo shrugged. "What does she have to do with anything?"
"She came to the palace." Iphicles forced himself to keep his voice calm and flat, though he really wanted to scream into Apollo's smug face. "She was pregnant. Her father had kicked her out. He wouldn't believe you took her by force. Called her a whore, blamed her for his son's death. She'd wandered the streets for days before showing up at the kitchen gate begging for scraps. The cook let her stay, tried to give her something to do, but she was a rich girl, not made for kitchen work. I let her stay in one of the guest suites while we tried to figure out what to do with her. One day..." Iphicles squeezed his eyes shut, wincing at the memory. "She wanted to get rid of the baby. She took some herbs. They got rid of the baby, all right. By making her bleed inside until she died."
"Is there a point to this?" Apollo tapped one foot impatiently. Then his eyes widened, his expression going from bored to incredulous. "Is that what all this nonsense is about? Some silly cow botches an abortion, and you rededicate a city over it? What, did you want to fuck her yourself?"
"Hell, no." Iphicles shook his head again. "And it wasn't just her. Daphne, Cassandra, Amphissa, Arsinoe..." He trailed off, feeling suddenly tired. "There's no use talking to you, is there? You don't care. You just take what you want -- who you want -- and you don't give a shit."
"Of course I take what I want, you idiot! I'm a god. It's what we do."
"Ares doesn't. Not with his lovers, anyway."
"To Tartarus with Ares." Apollo clapped his hands on Iphicles' shoulders and pushed down until Iphicles' legs buckled and his knees thudded painfully against the floor. "We were in the middle of something here. Let's get on with it."
Iphicles took a couple of deep, steadying breaths and lifted his head to meet Apollo's eyes. "What do you want me to do?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Apollo leaned back against the desk, propping his hips against it and bracing his hand on the edge. "Stop playing the blushing virgin, Iphicles, I know you've done this before. Take down my pants and blow me."
Iphicles willed his hands not to shake as he tugged at the laces at Apollo's groin. It wouldn't be so bad, he told himself. He *had* done this before, after all, though never with someone he hated. It would be humiliating, yes, but not much worse than crawling to Hercules for help would've been, and with this, at least, no one else had to know. People might wonder at his sudden decision to restore Apollo's temple, but he was the king, after all. He was allowed an arbitrary decision from time to time. It wouldn't be so bad. He could deal with it.
Apollo's cock was already half-erect when Iphicles peeled back the soft layers of leather that covered it. It took only a few quick strokes of Iphicles' hand to bring it to full hardness. He decided to take it as a good sign. Maybe he could make the god come quickly and get the whole thing over with. With that resolution in mind, Iphicles wrapped his fingers around the base of the shaft and took the swollen, wine-colored head into his mouth.
He could say one thing for the gods: what they lacked in morals, they made up for in personal hygiene. There were no off-putting smells or tastes, or any of the other mood- killers that plagued mortals. Apollo tasted clean and faintly sweet, and smelled like crushed laurel leaves. The molten heat of his skin was odd, but not unpleasant. The gold- colored curls at his groin were softer than lambswool. Too bad it was all wasted on an evil bastard... Iphicles closed his eyes and sucked harder, letting the cock slide further into his mouth. Above him, he could hear Apollo's breathing, deep and steady, punctuated by the occasional murmur of "Oh, yeah..." and "Ooooh, that's nice..." whenever he did something pleasing with his lips or tongue. Strong fingers twined in Iphicles' hair and pushed at the back of his head, controlling the rhythm.
Time crawled. Hopes of a quick orgasm faded. Divine constitution, Iphicles thought grimly, had to be stronger than mortal skill. His jaw was starting to ache. He tried to pull back, to give himself a breather, but the hand in his hair tightened its grip and shoved him forward, hard. Apollo's cock thrust into his throat like a battering ram, deeper than he'd ever tried to take anyone, choking off his breath and sending a painful shudder through his body. Iphicles struggled instinctively, but his strength was nothing against the god's.
"Oooh, yeah... that's how I like it." Apollo pumped his hips, ignoring Iphicles' frantic resistance. Or maybe not ignoring but enjoying. Given the bastard's history, he probably liked a good struggle. Iphicles tried to hold still just to spite him, but he couldn't stop his throat from convulsing, squeezing Apollo's cock with each contraction.
"Yesss..." Apollo hissed and finally came, pulling back at the last possible moment to spill his cum over Iphicles' face. He gave a pleased sigh, and patted Iphicles' head lightly before stepping away. "Not bad, mortal. Not bad at all. I knew that pretty mouth of yours was good for more than just uttering stupid proclamations."
Iphicles wiped his face with the back of his hand and took a deep, shuddering breath. His mouth and throat felt raw, and he could taste blood on his lower lip.
"All right, Apollo." He rose unsteadily to his feet. "We made a bargain and sealed it. Keep your side of it now -- no more plague."
"Oh, but I'm not finished yet." Apollo raised his arms above his head and stretched, arching his back like a contented cat. The motion made his hips thrust forward, and Iphicles saw that his cock was hard again, a small bead of moisture gathering at the tip. "In fact, I'm only getting started."
Iphicles backed away a step. "We had a deal," he said with considerably more conviction than he felt. "I did what you wanted. We're done."
It was faster than a lightning strike. One moment he was standing there, the next he was sprawled face down across his desk, his head still ringing from a blow he never saw coming. Apollo leaned over him, holding him down easily with one hand on the back of the neck.
"We're not done," the god whispered silkily, "till I say we're done. Keep that in mind, little king, and it'll go a lot easier for both of us."
"Fuck off," Iphicles growled, then choked back a cry of pain as Apollo slammed his head into the desk. For one horrible moment he thought he might've alerted Eurytion. But there was no sound of alarm outside, no one came rushing through the door to die. Iphicles bit down on his lip as Apollo struck him again. His vision blurred, and more blood trickled into his mouth. He was vaguely aware of the sensation of smooth, polished wood against his skin, and it took him a moment to realize that it meant he was naked, his clothes vanished by Apollo's whim. Smooth hands slid down his back. Rough fingers probed his ass.
"No!" He struck out wildly, and got a fist in the ribs for his trouble. The blow knocked the breath from his lungs, and he was sure he heard a bone crack. Pain lanced his side, coloring the world red at the edges. It didn't matter, though. He kept fighting, and Apollo kept hitting him, and he knew he was going to die because he couldn't give in, not to this, not to this... His vision was fading, he was slipping into darkness; yet, strangely, the last thing he remembered seeing was an eye-searing flash of blue light.
Consciousness returned slowly, reluctantly, accompanied by sharp stabs of pain. Iphicles groaned. It hurt when he breathed in, hurt when he breathed out, hurt when he held his breath and lay perfectly still. Was this Tartarus, then? He didn't think he'd been *that* wicked.
"You're not in Tartarus," an unfamiliar voice told him. "Stop being so melodramatic. It's only your own bedroom."
Iphicles opened his eyes. An expanse of blue filled his field of vision -- the silk canopy of his bed. He was still naked, covered only by a blanket and a stiff bandage around his ribs. It had to be evening, because the candles were lit. Iphicles turned his head, expecting to see a doctor or a servant next to the bed, but the figure that slouched indolently in his favorite armchair couldn't possibly be either of those things.
Broad shoulders. Powerful arms. Black hair framing a strong, square-jawed face. A close-cropped beard disguising, almost successfully, the unexpectedly full lips. This stranger was bronze and obsidian where Apollo was all gold, but the family resemblance was unmistakable. Iphicles coughed -- that hurt too -- and licked his lips.
"In the flesh." He had a beautiful voice, rich and seductive, but with an edge to it -- a sword blade sheathed in velvet. "How do you feel?"
"Like shit." Iphicles brushed one hand over his bandage and winced. "Where's Apollo?"
Ares wore black leather, studded with silver along the seams. The studs on his shoulders gleamed in the candlelight when he shrugged. "Off putting his sorry self back together again, I presume. He won't be coming here again." His teeth gleamed, too, when he smiled. "I made it very clear to him that when someone dedicates a city to me, I take it seriously. Which means no other gods messing on my turf."
"Oh really?" Iphicles didn't bother trying to keep the bitterness from his voice. "Where were you a month ago, then, when the plague started?"
Ares' smile vanished. "In Sparta, supervising a war. That's why Apollo tried this. The little weasel never would've dared if he thought I was paying attention. I got... careless."
It wasn't exactly an apology, but Iphicles supposed it was as close as a god ever got.
"Thank you," he muttered. "And since you're suddenly taking an interest... I don't suppose you could patch me up a bit? I feel like I've had a mountain dropped on me."
"No such luck." Ares shook his head. "If a mortal had injured you, I could help. But a god can't undo what another god has done."
"Oh." Iphicles' heart sank. "Then you can't cure the plague."
"No." Ares flashed his grin again. "But I can kick Apollo's skinny ass until he cures it himself. Which I have. And he has."
"Thank you." Iphicles felt giddy with relief. "That's great. I'll... uhm... have a festival in your honor or something."
"I never turn down one of those," Ares said wryly. "I don't suppose I could talk you into declaring war on Athens while you're at it?"
"That's what I thought you'd say." Ares slouched further down in his chair and stared at the steel tips of his boots with a dour expression. "I must admit," he said after a while, "I was surprised when you rededicated Corinth out of the blue like that. I thought at first you were doing it to annoy Hercules."
Iphicles snorted. That hurt, too. "Much as I like annoying the big lug, that would be a little extreme. No, I meant what I said to Apollo."
"I know." Ares watched him curiously. "And I have to give you points for originality. Usually, when men dedicate cities to me they're looking for power, victory in battle, security on their borders... not to express approval of my courting methods."
Iphicles could feel himself blushing. "I'd just had enough," he muttered, "that's all. Not just Apollo, but all the gods. Treating the human race like a collection of sex toys. Taking women by threat or by force or in disgui--" he broke off.
"Oho. Is that what it's about?" There was an amused glint in Ares' eyes. "Still carrying a grudge about your mother?"
Iphicles began to make an automatic denial, then thought better of it. "It's part of it, yeah. But not the important part. That is... I think I would've done it anyway, even if Zeus had never laid a hand on Mother. I've seen too much of this shit, that's all. I know I can't stop the gods from doing what they want, but I can at least... I don't know... make a gesture, I suppose."
"Well, I'm not complaining." Ares shrugged again. "But if you're under the impression that you've given Corinth over to a *nice* god, you're going to be sorely disappointed."
"I know. I'll deal with it."
"Damn right you will." Ares stood. "And I'll be back to tell you exactly *how* you're going to deal. Think on that while you're enjoying your bed rest." And then he was gone, without even the traditional flash of light to mark his departure. Iphicles stared at the wall in front of him, and wondered what in Tartarus he'd gotten himself into. There was going to be trouble ahead, particularly when Hercules found out, he knew that well enough.
But it was all right. He'd deal with it.