I waited for my secret visitor. My grief was still like a knife in my gut but the pain had dulled to a throb instead of the sharp twist it had been after Patroclus' death. But today I had avenged him and killed the arrogant prince who'd taken his life. Dragging him behind my chariot felt good and I cared not for the opinion of the rest of this army. Menelaus, the sanctimonious hypocrite, had frowned and chastised me.
But I didn't give a fig for him and left him still mouthing off pious warnings about the damn gods and what they would do. I snorted and drained the goblet in my hand. Most of the gods chose sides like capricious children. You were favored one day only to be discarded the next. Ares rarely played those games and I honored him with my complete devotion. If he came to me with an order I'd obey it but I tried to stay away from the rest of the Olympians.
They were more trouble than they were worth. I poured myself more wine and felt my shield brother's loss even more acutely. How often had we drunk from each other's goblet? How often had he indulged me with yet one more pitcher of the sweet wine from our family's vineyard? I closed my eyes tight against the tears and missed him even more. The lump in my throat was too big to allow me to do more than sip it.
How he would laugh if he were here. I hoped Hades had sent him on to the Elysian Fields. Beautiful Patroclus of the soft eyes and the dark hair, he'd left a gaping hole in my heart. I would probably carry it to my grave. Although if this was the best soldier the Trojans had to put forth against me, I wouldn't be dying any time soon. I had more to worry about from my so called 'allies' than I did from anything the Trojans could throw at me.
"Sir, your visitor is here." Eudorus stood holding back the flap that served as the entrance to my tent. He rolled his eyes at the figure shrouded in black and I saw my guest was almost as tall as me.
"Send him in and do not disturb us until I call." My voice was harsh and from the corner of my eye, I saw a shiver tremble through the black silk of his cloak. He entered and had barely reached the fire pit before he dropped to his knees and pushed back the all enveloping hood.
"My Lord Achilles," was all he said, his head bowed as if afraid to look at me.
Well, well, well, they sent a prince. Hector's little brother, now the heir to the throne of Troy, seducer of Helen, the man who made Menelaus a cuckold. I'd seen him once on the ramparts of the great wall. He was beautiful then and in the warm light of the fire he truly looked touched by the gods. If I'd had the Golden Apple and had to choose, I'd definitely choose him. How pissed off would that have made the goddesses?
The first smile in days crossed my lips and made my next action even more surprising. "Princes shouldn't kneel to generals, Prince Paris. Get up and sit over here."
He raised his face to me and a look of bewilderment parted those soft lips and widened his dark eyes. "My lord?"
"Get up," I waited for him to do so, watching him with sharp eyes. I had a sudden urge to see all of him without the shroud of silk. "Sit there." I pointed to the wooden stool slightly off to one side where my scribe usually sat. He moved with the grace of a dancer and I had a brief vision of what he might look like naked. "Good boy, now drink something."
I poured out the last of the wine and handed it to him. His dark eyes blinked at me and the touch of his fingers against mine sent an unexpected shiver through my arm. "Thank you, my lord."
He was a quiet one, I mused. "Take a drink first then we'll talk about why you've come." His eyes dropped to the wine but he obediently took a sip. He clutched the goblet with both hands and I spied a tremor in his long fingers. They were as golden as the rest of the skin I could see and I itched to see more. "Take off the cloak; we're going to be speaking for a while."
Darting a quick look at me, he nodded and set the goblet aside before unclasping the emerald broach which held his cloak closed. The black silk pooled about him, revealing a simple sleeve-less white tunic edged in gold. His arms were bare and corded with muscle but not the muscles his older brother had. This one hadn't trained until recently as a warrior and I wondered about that.
"Tell me about yourself, son of Priam. Are you glad your big brother is dead?" I asked him with a hard smile.
His eyes flashed at me. "No!" But his gaze couldn't hold mine and it dropped to his lap again. "No, I am not glad. He was a good man and a kind brother."
"He didn't torment you as a child? Make your life a misery the way brothers do?" I was curious about some rumors I'd heard about this prince.
Shaking his head, his gaze returned to me. "I did not know him as a child. My . . . father gave me away as an infant. I grew up far from here with a different family. I only met the prince two years ago. He was never anything but kind to me."
'Gave away' rather than sent away, that was an interesting choice of words. "And the king, why did he give you up so young?" I finished my wine and got up to get another wineskin. His eyes followed my every move until I once more sat down.
"There was a prophecy saying I would destroy Troy." His voice had a hopeless note in it that intrigued me. "If only he'd left me with my flock of sheep. I was a good shepherd but I'm not a very good prince."
"You were happy being a shepherd?" I couldn't help the note of incredulity.
His eyes flashed again and he sat up a little straighter. "I had a loving father and mother, a job Papa said I was good at and small dreams of someday maybe raising my own family. Of course, I was happy."
I blinked and drank a little more. This little one had the heart of a lover not a warrior. No wonder Aphrodite won their little contest. "Did you not wonder why the Goddesses chose you to render judgment between them? If you were but a simple shepherd, why would they come to you?"
He sighed and picked up his goblet again, turning it around and around nervously. "I didn't know. I still don't know. I almost couldn't believe them when first they appeared. But they just . . . sparkled onto the hill before me. They glowed golden and my eyes were dazzled by their beauty." That wonder appeared again in his eyes and he looked at me with some of the awe he must have felt then. "When they asked me to choose, I tried to say no but they wouldn't listen."
"They rarely do," I shrugged and watched him gulp at my temerity. "There isn't a goddess out there who can be expected to sit down and reason like a man."
"Really?" His voice had an endearing little squeak to it that made me want to smile.
Those big brown eyes gazed at me with some of that same wonder he'd showed before. And that sent a shot of energy through my whole body. It had been a long time since I'd awed anybody. I gestured for him to continue and he coughed a little to get his voice back.
"Well, I looked at them. Each one was beautiful, each one wore something soft and pretty and each one looked at me as if I was the most important man in the whole world."
"Yes, they do have a way of flattering a man into doing what they want." I'd had brief encounters with all three of them. "If there wasn't a discernable difference between them, why choose Aphrodite?"
He blushed and looked down into his wine. "She had kind eyes." His gaze came back up to mine. "It felt like when she looked at me, my heart was bared to her. So I chose her and she offered me my heart's desire."
"Helen," I nodded at him but was surprised when he shook his head 'no'. "If not Helen then who . . . or what is your heart's desire?" A tide of red flooded his face and neck. I had the sudden urge to strip off that tunic and see how far down his body it went. Reining it in, I reached over and poured some more wine into his goblet. This was turning out to be a most surprising conversation. "Take another drink and answer me."
"I . . . I just wanted someone to love me and who I could love, too." His voice was subdued, little more than a whisper. "Like Papa and Mama loved me before everything changed. It was just a week later when the soldiers came. Papa told me the whole story then, how I wasn't really his son but a prince." Those dark eyes still held a bewildered look, like a small child who'd lost something precious. "He said I had to go and live with them now, leave my flock and become the warrior I was born to be. Once I got here, King Priam destroyed everything I brought with me from home. He said they were worthless . . . to a prince."
The pain of that betrayal was still fresh even two years later. Priam really was an arrogant fool. If he'd treated this lad with kindness and given him any affection at all, the prince would have given him his own love and loyalty. I was beginning to see that parenting was an art and neither of ours was a devotee inspired by the Muses. My mother had protected me but if she loved me, I couldn't tell.
"What happened when you became the prince? Did Hector start training you?" I relaxed in my chair, feeling curious about this man, little more than a boy really.
He nodded and took another sip of wine, still lost in the memories of before. "I'm a good archer but I don't know much about swords. He started training me in fighting while some of the king's advisors gave me lessons in etiquette and diplomacy. Those lessons were harder than the mock battles. Battles just leave bruises, there's so much more that can go wrong with manners."
Caught by the chagrined note in his voice, I snorted a laugh and watched his eyes widen again. "I think you're right, Paris. The first time I sat down to dinner with a king, I made a fool of myself. Nobody ever told me there were rules to follow about pretty much everything on the table."
One corner of his lips tried to turn upwards but he fought it, taking another sip of wine to curb his desire to laugh. His shoulders had finally relaxed a little and I wondered what else I could get him to tell me. "What was your first diplomatic mission like, Paris?"
He gazed into the fire and the melancholy look came back. "Hector and I were sent to Sparta to negotiate a trade agreement."
"Paris, your luck was either incredibly bad or you pissed off more than one god." I could well believe Aphrodite landing him in it. Wait a minute; he said Helen wasn't his heart's desire. "Why Helen?"
He wouldn't look at me, just shrugging and gripping his goblet so hard I could see his fingers whiten. "I . . . there's something wrong with me, I guess."
From what I could see, there wasn't a single thing wrong with him except he was too far away. Every now and then a whiff of cedar wafted my direction and I wondered if he always smelled of that clean scent. "Tell me."
Paris squirmed on the stool and darted a frightened look at me. "I . . . I don't really enjoy women much. They're so confusing."
And I had a sudden epiphany. "You don't want to love a woman but sometimes men make your heart beat faster and your body comes to life with a will of its own."
A crimson tide of color washed through his skin and his whole body trembled. I don't think he could have said a word if his life depended on it. The poor boy probably thought I was going to kill him for being such a pervert. He really was an innocent in the ways of the world.
"I can tell you haven't talked to anyone about this. Not even Hector?" I quizzed him gently and he shook his head, his eyes big as a mouse eyeing a hungry cat. "There's nothing wrong with feeling that way, Paris. Our laws do not forbid men from loving other men. Sparta has an entire phalanx of lovers, men who fight and love along side each other."
"They do?" That little squeak was back and I smiled at him, causing him to blush all over again. The little itch to strip him naked and see how far it went was back but I forced it down with the control I'd learned early on.
"If Helen wasn't your heart's desire, why did you run away with her?" I came back to the puzzle and watched him pale, dropping his gaze again and gripping the goblet like a shield. And that's when the gods gave me a startling vision. "She wasn't your heart's desire but she was . . . someone else's - Hector's."
He looked like he'd seen the Medusa's head, turned to rigid stone with his face wearing terror like a mask. Well, this was unexpected. How sad I couldn't tell Menelaus he'd been avenged when I killed Hector. And what a tangled web was woven about these two armies. We were fighting for a lie. I swallowed more wine and thought about what this might mean for the war.
"Please, my lord, I beg you not to tell the others. My sister-in-law doesn't know and my nephew, Astyanax, idolizes his father." Paris flung himself to the rug by my feet, his hands clasped tightly before him and his voice shaking with tears unshed.
That clean scent was back, but stronger and I let my fingers brush a tear from his soft cheek. A damask rose could feel no softer. Brown eyes beseeched my compassion and triggered lust within me, the likes of which I'd never felt before. "Sweet Paris, you are but a pawn in a war of the gods." His curly hair was soft under my touch. "I will keep this secret for you." I stroked down the long, elegant neck to the edge of white linen on his broad shoulder. "We have many secrets, you and I. What is one more?"
His innocent eyes were confused and little lines crinkled between his eyes. But I noticed his breath had changed and the little pulse in his throat was beating faster than before. He was not immune to this growing attraction but I thought he didn't know what to do about it. I knew what I wanted to do but for the first time in years I thought of another's welfare before my own.
"I thank you, my Lord Achilles. If I could, I would shout to the gods of your generous soul." His voice was but a whisper but it was fervent.
So I threw caution to the winds and cradled his beautiful face between my strong hands, tilting it up and leaning in to kiss those ruby red lips. They were soft and trembled a little under my gentle assault. His scent was stronger here and I breathed him in like the rose I'd compared him to earlier. But his lips had parted beneath mine and I had to taste him. Wine flavored and intoxicating, I drank him down slowly.
His little moan made my blood heat and one of my hands slipped down his throat, pushing the linen aside so I could stroke his golden skin with the tips of my callused fingers. He felt like silk and satin and the more I felt, the more I needed to feel. But his whimper brought me to my senses and I pulled far enough away to rest my forehead against his.
"I am not generous, Paris, not generous at all. We are sworn enemies. I killed your brother and intend to destroy your city. There can be no love between us." My whisper sounded false even to my ears.
His breath caught and trembling shook his whole body. "M-m-my lord . . . I do not understand these feelings inside of me."
Such an innocent and why wasn't I pushing him away instead of stroking his cheek with my thumb? Somewhere Aphrodite was laughing herself sick at my idiocy. All I had to do was turn this into a rape and I could destroy the man before me. It was my turn to moan beneath my breath. I couldn't do it. I could no more hurt this boy then I could foreswear my god.
Ares was laughing along with the goddess of love.
"It's called desire, little one." I went back to touching him, smoothing the linen I wanted to rip from his body. "It's rare between friends, let alone enemies. It means I want to strip you naked and take you to bed. I want to touch you everywhere, make you scream with pleasure and bury myself so deep within you I will never come out."
"Oh-h-h-h," the little sigh said so much. "I think . . . I think I want that, too." Those brown eyes looked into mine with a little of the innocence burned away. "I do not think we are enemies, my lord. I could not feel such an aching need for an enemy." His hand came up and touched my cheek gently. "Show me, my lord. Show me what desire means between two men who . . . like each other."
I am not a weak man or at least I never thought of myself as weak. But this youth's touch melted all my defenses and laid siege to my heart. Throwing caution aside, I stood, bringing him up with me. "Come to bed, little Paris. I will show you how two men love each other. We have two hours before the dawn."
His smile shone brighter than the fire and I slid both arms about him to bring our bodies flush. Instant heat and I think we both moaned. Naked - I needed him naked now. Leading him through the second flap into the small sleeping room, I prepared to teach a lesson I thought neither of us would ever forget.
********* Aphrodite *********
"Yes!" I wiggled all over and stuck out my tongue at my husband. "See Hep', I told you they were perfect for each other."
"Yes, yes," he said somewhat testily but I just smiled and let my strap drop off my shoulder. That always makes him catch his breath and I sat in his lap, making sure I didn't put any weight on his damaged leg.
"I believe you owe me a forfeit, Hep." I whispered, blowing a little breath into his ear. "I think I'd like you to give me a bath."
"A bath," he already had that glazed look in his eyes. "I can do that, 'Dite."
"With bubbles," I nibbled my way across his cheek. "And oil, lots of oil for my skin."
"Your beautiful skin," his voice was dreamy and he stood up holding me against his chest. "You little minx, you knew that was going to happen."
I giggled and hugged him closer. "Of course I did, Hep'. I saw Paris' heart's desire after all. And the Fates gave me a little peek into the future." I sighed. "They don't either one have much longer in this war and they both deserve a little happiness before it all gets taken away."
"There's always the Elysian Fields, sweetheart." Hep' moved us to my mountain retreat with a flicker of power.
"I'm working on something better," I smiled smugly at him and he chuckled.
"My little schemer," he kissed my pout away. "I believe you need bubbles and oil."
I giggled again and whisked away our clothes. "And you, Hep, I always need you, too."
He walked us both into the sunken tub and while I kissed him, I hoped Achilles and Paris had as good a time as I was going to have. I'd check in on them a little later. I'd have to have a little talk with Ares, too. All my couples are special but these lovers touched something inside my heart that made me want something a little extra for them.
I'm not the Goddess of Love for nothing. They'd soon find that out.
End of part one