Link to all chapters
Family, Friends, Sons and Lovers, part 2
Six days after Darius's return to Sura, a temple celebration in Inder's honour was organized to rejoice in the victory of the Alliance army at Essin. Ryou found himself in his finery right up a wooden podium with Darius, three feet behind Leyam and at the same level as a few important nobles and generals. He could only hope that the rules of precedence weren't as strict here as they'd been in feudal Japan, or some of these men would be plotting his demise to avenge themselves of this dishonour. In that context, Rand was a somewhat reassuring presence since he was standing right behind Leyam and nobody seemed to mind. Then again he might be there as a bodyguard. Even if he was not, he was not a man one would pick a fight with lightly...
Leyam was dressed in a long flowing white skirt bordered with gold, a golden halter top and a magnificent cylindrical hat of gold, gems and white silk rising almost a foot above his head. Despite the Pretty Princess getup, he talked about victory and the clash of arms with perfect aplomb, and the crowd listened respectfully. Ryou watched the faces curiously. Sure, the nobles had by now understood Leyam's game and accepted it, or at least did not dare go against him, but what did the man in the street think about it? Ryou watched the faces lifted towards Leyam...It was to be remembered that these societies were very rigid. These people were uneducated, could not read and write, and were too busy making a living to worry about the philosophy of government and the freedom of the individual. All that mattered was that Leyam was their monarch. He could point to any one of them, and have them killed on the spot or made rich beyond their wildest dreams. He was the walking, talking representative of Ashur and Enlil on Earth and the heir and blood of kings. Presumably he could give this speech naked and the awe ingrained into these people from birth would still do its job.
"Acclaim your champion!" Leyam shouted, startling Ryou out of his thoughts. The King made a flourish back towards where they were standing and Darius strode forward in his armour and his black leather collar, his strength rippling from him like a sword bared in his hand. He didn't make a speech; maybe only the King was allowed to. But he lifted one fist in the air and held it there, and the crowd, who'd been worshipfully silent until now, went wild, particularly the soldiers.
Then the priests of Inder took over. A garlanded bull was lead out of the side door of the nearest temple and towards the public forum. Ryou gave the animal a pitying look, an old Buddhist legend about live sacrifices going through his mind, then he went back to studying his surroundings. Their group was at the foot of the flight of twelve large steps leading up to the palace's main gate, known as the God Gate in reference to the three major temples around the public square and hanging out in large balconies over the slope of the hillside. Between temples and palace was the largest open space in Sura, reserved for royal or religious functions. Otherwise it was used as a temple-sponsored flea market of amulets and holy objects as well as an open-aired tavern. It was currently jam-packed with people. Room had been cleared by soldiers next to the temples to make room for the holy rituals of celebrations. When the royal party had arrived, men had been wrestling naked there, running races, distributing good nutritional food for free (Hygeia's temple, naturally) or watching scenes re-enacting famous myths and stories of the old gods. In this land without weekends and very few holy days, people knew how to enjoy a good party when they could.
"See the third man in Ashur's delegation?" Leyam whispered to Darius. They'd both stepped back, letting divinity now take the stand. Inder's temple was in charge of the sacrifice at Darius's request, but the three main temples of Sura - Ashur, Enlil and Hygeia - had sent representatives bedecked in rich clothes and symbols of their god. Ryou had been distractedly watching the Holy One of Hygeia absently disentangle the snake from one of her arms to let it wrap around another.
Darius looked towards a group of five men fifteen meters away, all of them bearing the silver horned disk of Ashur on their staffs. "Yeah. Third man- oh, is that what's-his-name? Obeor?"
"They call him Obeor-Tallit now," said Rand from where he'd stationed himself behind Leyam once more.
"That's right," said Leyam, nodding languidly. "I had the temple hierarchy summon him to Sura, without being obvious about it of course."
Darius shaded his eyes as if the sun was bothering him, but his gaze was sharp and directed towards their left. "So that's him, hm? I'm glad I saw him. Are you going to talk to him after the ceremony?"
"I think not, not yet. Rand tells me he's a stubborn man. Hmf, wonder where he gets that from. He's working his way up the temple's chain of command on his own power. Showing him favour now might injure his pride in his achievements."
"He is a hell of a lot younger than those other cadavers."
"One day, if he makes it to the top- oops, that's my signal," Leyam added. The bull had bellowed, a horrible wet trumpeting of agony as its throat was slit. Leyam swept forward and arrived just as the creature was in its final throes. The attendant priest, a large man built like a butcher, handed him the bloodied sword. Leyam lifted it before him with dainty care for his finery, and the crowd made loud noises of approval. Ryou distracted himself from the animal's final bubbling, wheezing demise by concentrating on the man Leyam had mentioned.
"Half brother," explained Darius, catching the direction of Ryou's glance.
Ryou stared once more as discreetly as he could, surprised. The young man was standing behind the Holy One of Ashur. They were dressed much the same, in long robes without sleeves. Obeor-Tallit was of average height with brown hair, and he was either frowning or looking very serious. It was a bit too far to tell exactly, but he did look a little bit like Leyam, just younger and with a rounder face.
"I didn't know you and Leyam had any other brothers."
"We don't. Not officially. Not that I'm official either, mind you, but Obeor was given to the temples like the others, poor bastard. I was half recognized by dent of being left intact to grow up alongside Leyam."
"...Intact?" asked Ryou who did not really want to know.
Darius gave him a pointed look which was explanation enough.
Ryou reminding himself - once again! - that his own culture had gotten up to a lot worse a comparatively short time ago. A few children from the wrong side of the royal beds in Japan's history had undoubtedly been deprived of life rather than of their genitals. From the little Ryou knew of temples, Obeor would have to know how to read and write to get this far up the hierarchy, and that meant he would have been sponsored and funded at his entry, undoubtedly by his father. As such, Obeor himself would not necessarily think his fate a cruel one, and compared to those born in slavery or in the harsh condition of the lower classes, it was not.
"Do you know Obeor at all?"
"Never seen him until today," Darius said with a shrug. "Leyam mentioned him awhile back, and I was curious, though not enough to seek him out. I suppose someone's told him who he is, but then again, maybe not. Our father was dead when he was, uh...Leyam, how old is Obeor?"
"Nineteen," said Leyam, who'd just rejoined them.
"Right. What? Nineteen, and he's already one of Ashur's Ensi? Damn, that man will go far."
"I certainly hope so. I would love to have someone of my blood as Holy One of the temple of Ashur. Come on, it's too warm to stay out here. Gods, I wish it would flood already." Leyam waved one last time and the crowd cheered long after he'd departed and reached the top of the stairs and the God Gate. Darius and Ryou trailed after him in the knot of nobles making their way back to the palace buildings.
"How many wives did your father have?" Ryou asked curiously, which, on second thought, was not a question he'd ever thought he'd have to ask a boyfriend...
"Two when I was a child. Queen Sophrone and the Lady Baileet. The third one died childless after a bad fall when I was very young, I don't remember her."
"Then there was your mother and other concubines." Busy man.
"He was a king," said Darius prosaically. "Come on, let's go to the atrium, there'll be something cold to drink."
"How many siblings do you have?" Ryou asked as they entered the cooler marble room a few minutes later. It was in the royal compound where only the most favoured were allowed to enter, so they were alone again. The other nobles had gone to write letters and petitions in the Golden Hall, Tupila's domain, or else they were preparing for the evening's feast in the houses they lived in near the walls while they were in Sura, or walking the gardens in little coteries, plotting things.
"Ah, two. Obeor and some other guy who's off in a temple in Atta province. And a few girls, too. Hmm, actually just one, now that I think about it. In Ishara's temple, or married off to someone."
"So, five children, and then there's the two royal children who died. Seven in total."
"I imagine there's a few extra bastards who died as children that I never heard about. Not that many children in all, I know. My father was at war frequently, and even had he stayed at home, he was a man who controlled his appetites and his household. He was no Zomay-Kaillit, to beget a hundred sons."
"I was actually thinking that seven was a lot." Ryou's modern Japanese sensibilities certainly thought so.
"Considering how many women he could have fathered them on, no, not that much." Darius poured himself a beer from the pitcher kept cool by the waters of the fountain in the middle of the room; the atrium had only half-walls, the rest was open to whatever breeze would grace the gardens. Ryou had found the place a few days ago and it'd become his favourite room after the baths. "Ahhh, that's more like it. The weather will break tomorrow, all the augurs say so."
So does the barometer, thought Ryou, watching a few low-flying birds chasing flies amongst the palm trees. "So who is the other brother?"
"No idea. Leyam would know, but he's never mentioned him; probably a really boring man. His mother was from Atta; they're of Babylonian descent down that way, kind of inbred and not always very bright."
"And he's also in a temple, then. Same deal as Obeor, I take it."
"Yeah, that's what happens to most bastards; their mothers are married off to some vassal if they want to stay close to the child - most would rather stay close to the King if he's not tired of her yet - but the kid is placed in a temple. There's enough infighting amongst children of the wives, you don't need to go adding illegitimate get to the mix. Leyam's got a bastard in a temple too, but he put the kid in with Inder if that makes you feel better."
"Why would that make me feel better?"
"Because the notion of eunuchs seem to bother you a bit," said Darius with a perceptive look in Ryou's direction, "and Inder only takes whole men as his devout. Hopefully the little by-blow is growing up to be a fine warrior-priest alongside my own brat."
So instead of getting castrated and confined within the religious system, the kid was going to be sent to war as a- waitaminute.
"I'm sorry?" said Ryou, hand frozen mid-motion as he reached towards a mango floating in the water.
"You said he'd be growing up alongside...?"
"Yeah, I've got one in Inder's house as well. Best place for mine, that's for sure, but Leyam's going against tradition to not-"
"You have children?"
Darius looked at him quizzically over the rim of the cup. He'd leaned a hip against the fountain's rim, ignoring the ornate bench carved out of the basin's marble. "Sure I do. I did mention they didn't cut me at birth, right? You should know." There was a faint leer in his tone, which went right over Ryou's head.
"...Right. How many?"
"Two sons that I know of."
"You seem surprised."
"I guess I shouldn't be. You did say you'd been a little wild in your younger days."
"The youngest is two."
"...Oh. Um, I thought you said you didn't sleep with women anymore."
"Only when nothing else is available," Darius corrected. "Or in other circumstances."
"I see...Where is he?"
"My youngest? He was born in Nairoban, a city on the Taibor five day's ride from here."
"Why is he not here in the palace? He's your son."
"That he is," said Darius with a wolfish smile, "but his mother is another man's wife."
"You've been saying that a lot."
"Yes, I have, haven't I." Ryou dropped his surcoat on the bench before sitting down next to it. The breeze, normally one of the pleasures of the atrium, was absent today, but some coolness rose off the waters of the fountain.
"His mother fostered him off somewhere before her husband came back and asked a few awkward questions. He'd been at war for a year, you see. Besides, Rand says the bastard looks like me. He keeps tracks of these things, just in case." He was looking at Ryou with his head tilted to one side. "This seems to have really surprised you. You're thirty and the oldest child, so you have sons too, right?"
"No, as a matter of fact I do not."
"Really? Ah, well, that can happen, some mares never come into season as they say-"
"I've never slept with a woman, I've never felt the compunction to. Culture gap."
"I'm forestalling what you're about to say."
"Oh, I know you're man enough," said Darius, one hand up in a placating gesture. The nature of his denial was enough to tell Ryou where his lover's mind had gone to, of course, but he decided not to pick up on it. "I'm sure with your lifeforce and, heh, thrust, you'll be getting sons as soon as you try. If you see some girl around here that catches your fancy, have a go at it. Just run it past me first, some flowers are only for the king to pick."
"...That is a joke, right?"
"You cannot possibly be serious- I'm not about to have a one-night stand with some woman when I'm living under your roof, Darius."
Darius paused with his cup halfway to his mouth and looked once more puzzled. "Why ever not?"
The cheerful burble of the fountain suddenly sounded prickly.
"Ah, what heat!" Leyam exclaimed as he entered the atrium, fanning himself with one hand. He'd dressed down to the long skirt. Rand was following him, holding the clothes and hat his King had discarded. "But the augurs say-...what's up with you two?"
"Nothing," said Ryou with great perspicacity, but unfortunately Darius, smiling jaggedly from the other side of the fountain, did not pick up the cue or care to, and said, "My friend here wants to make a eunuch out of me."
Leyam stayed still, hand paused in mid-flap. Then he put down the scribe's table and papers he was holding on the circular bench, came around the fountain and sat down to listen with rapt attention. "Really? Do tell. Because that would be the most amazing thing I've heard since the last flood, and I've been reading reports all year of strange phenomenon that put your dog-headed creature in Palis to shame."
His reaction was the diametrical opposite of Rand's who'd glanced at Ryou, at Darius, picked up the scribe's table and papers, bowed to everyone quickly and left as silently as he'd come in.
From the way he was now frowning, Darius realized he'd made a tactical mistake, but it was too late now. Darius could be blunt, rude, brutal even, and seriously scary and forceful when he wanted to be, but Leyam was both his older brother and his king, and there was too much history between them; he was never going to be able to tell Leyam that this was none of his business.
"He says he has no intention of warming his bed with anybody else, even while I'm gone off on campaign for half a year, and he expects me to do the same," Darius finally said, still halfway between irritation and exasperated amusement at Ryou's crazy notions.
"I was explaining that it was a sign of- of affection and respect, Darius."
Leyam's eyebrows shot up and he turned towards Ryou with a bemused smile. "Really? Well, that's not quite castration, but that's still pretty odd."
"Odd?" Ryou felt like the room was spinning around, trying to knock him down. "Faithfulness is odd?"
Leyam blinked. " Faithfulness? What's that got to do with anything?"
"My faith is to Leyam, my king," Darius said firmly.
Oh great, from the puzzled look on both the brother's faces, the very notion of commitment in a relationship was foreign. "It's having several wives, mistresses, male lovers and god knows what else that'd be considered odd where I come from. In the Inlands, monogamy is the rule and not the exception."
"Your men sleep with nothing but one single woman for their entire lives?" Darius sniffed. "That can't be healthy."
Leyam nodded wisely. "A man with only one woman dies young, it's a well-known fact. Although..." The king scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Now that I think of it, it's only the poorest who cannot afford more than one, and wouldn't they die before a rich man who doesn't have to lift a finger to put food on his table...?"
"It's still unhealthy," growled Darius.
"No, as a matter of fact it's sleeping around that's not healthy," Ryou shot back. "Or do you not care about picking up some disease?"
Leyam snickered and clapped his hands. From the look on Darius's face, that one had scored.
"I'm no longer- I make plenty of sacrifices of wine and fruit to Ishhara, as does any soldier who's got more than the intelligence of a rabbit."
"Somehow that doesn't reassure me. Look, just to get one thing straight, are you telling me that you really are planning to-...That while we're-...I'm sorry, your maj- my King, but would it be possible to let Darius and myself discuss this privately?"
"Not for all the gold in Sura," Leyam answered brightly.
Ryou drew in a deep breath as discreetly as possible. Fine. Fine, he could do this. "Darius, do you think you'll actually sleep with someone else while you and I are lovers?"
"I'm a man, that's what I already said."
"That's not a reason."
"It's reason enough for me"
"And you really don't mind if I sleep with some woman?"
"No. Don't you mind not to? He doesn't have any sons yet, or any children at all," Darius added for Leyam's benefit. Leyam's eyebrows curved up in surprise and he gave Ryou an assessing look.
Ryou's lips pinched. He'd taken the wrong tack. In the weeks he'd been in the Outlands, he'd understood some things about these societies still clinging to antiquity. Darius was somewhat misogynistic even for his time, but men and women existed in different spheres as it were. Men could love and respect their wives, quite deeply in some cases, but women were seen as a part of that man, not wholly separate entities. No, Darius would not feel threatened by a woman, but of course that left the obvious tack.
"Then how would you feel if I slept with another man?"
"Who?" Darius asked immediately, eyes narrowing.
Ryou pushed up his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose while Leyam burst out laughing.
Darius glared at his brother. "I merely want to know who. It seems a reasonable question. Ryou's a stranger in these lands, some bastard might be trying to take advantage."
"You mean you'd be okay with it?" Ryou asked sardonically.
"I said I would," said Darius, though there'd been a second's pause and a scowl beforehand.
"Oh, brother, I remember a couple of dead bodies who would, if they could-"
"-whisper to me how well you share."
"Those fights were about women- in fact, they were mainly about fighting. I was a kid back then, a mindless young stallion."
"No argument there." Leyam snorted away one last chuckle and then looked expectantly at Ryou, waiting for the next volley.
Ryou felt he'd scored a point with the last thrust, but not won the game by a long stretch. A small inner voice wondered if he should push this...This way of thinking was ingrained in Assyrian society. But no, he needed to explain what he expected to Darius, what to someone from most countries Inland seemed pretty obvious, if not always strictly adhered to back there either. Whether he'd get it or not was another matter, but at least Ryou should not stay silent. And...it embarrassed him privately to realize this after a lifetime of one casual non-exclusive relationship and a good number of one-night stands, but the idea of Darius sleeping with anyone else did funny things to Ryou's composure.
"I don't understand you," Darius said, scratching his heads and making the disks in his hair clink. "You and I are both free men of equal age, why should one of us be cloven to the other?"
"It would be valid for both of us," Ryou ground out. "That's the whole point. I told you it's sign of respect-"
"How does my bedding somebody show you disrespect?"
"Because I'd not see a difference between that drunken guy you indiscriminately drag off into a corner and myself, for starters," Ryou said in the tone of one of his long-time algebra professors demolishing a student's shaky equation.
Darius's eyes narrowed, and Ryou finally realized he'd been understood. But when his lover spoke, the previous half-amused exasperation had been replaced by cold anger. "I invited you into my home."
"What's to say you won't invite one of those others into your home?"
"Nothing," Darius conceded, "but what's bedding them got to do with that? I would have taken you back here if you'd not gotten injured at Essin and reminded me you were safer away from all this. And I wouldn't have touched you until you'd shown me you wished it that way."
Darius had a point of sorts, even though he and Ryou were still talking a little at cross-purposes; maybe he'd meet the love of his life tumbling blindly into bed with someone, but stopping him from sleeping around would not much lessen the chance he'd eventually run into someone who could take the place of this cold and complicated Inlander with his odd ideas...
The silence was three seconds away from becoming fraught as they stared at each other across a gap that seemed wider than the atrium...but fortunately silences and Leyam did not get along very well if he wasn't their originator.
"You, not touch someone you wanted? That would have been a novelty in itself. Though of course I seem to understand that this wonder did not occur, and that it didn't take one hour after the fall of Essin for that resolve to have its day."
Darius gave his brother and king a particularly heavy look. It only made Leyam laugh.
"It's what I've always told you, little brother, there's enjoying the pleasures the Gods accord to all free men and then there's going overboard. It's fit for a man to take a wife and a few lovers in his life, but there were times in your youth when I feared an entire army would not be enough. Now you're down to one phalanx, so there's hope."
"I do not and have never bedded as many as you seem keen to assign to me, My King," Darius said through gritted teeth, "and never anyone under my command. Discipline would disintegrate."
"Mmmyes, that leaves all the other units though. Well, I'm hoping some of Ryou's restraint will rub off on you, because the sign of a true man, according to the Greeks-"
"There's nothing wrong with a man being passionate."
Leyam's eyebrows shot up. Not only was he not used to being interrupted, he'd probably not expected the interruption to come from Ryou. Neither had Darius. Neither had Ryou exactly planned this, and it left his argument in something of a mess.
"Sorry, your majesty- my King, but as long as I've known him, Darius has always shown considerable restraint. In most circumstances. And I don't mind, ah, I mean there's nothing wrong with passion in its right place. I know what the Greeks think, but in my coun- in the Inlands," Ryou corrected himself, leaving Japan out of his globalization, "people are allowed more latitude with their individuality."
Leyam scratched his chin. "Good thing you didn't appear in Roma Praetorium with those kinds of ideas, my friend; or in some of our Greek cities in the Alliance either. So tell me, if you like my brother exercising his passion and, ah, individuality, why are you so bothered by his practicing it with others?"
"Maybe it's a passion I want to keep to myself," said Ryou with glacial steadiness.
Darius was scowling at some grapes floating in the water. That'd been an unfair thing to do to a soldier; Darius's warrior spirit was quite ready to deal with an argument or even a knife fight as par for the course, but suddenly praising him and appreciating a quality of his fierce personality that he'd been repeatedly told was not his best point was sweeping the feet out from under him.
"Fine," he finally growled, giving a point halfway between Ryou and Leyam a stony glare. "Unlike what my brother likes to jest about, I do not need a new body for every night of the year, or indeed any night in particular. It wasn't as if I was planning on dragging someone other to my bed while you're available to me. I just don't like constraints imposed for nonsensical reasons, that's all. But if it's that important to you, and if you will abide by this as well of course, it's no real problem for me to forsake-"
Leyam burst out into a high trilling noise that an aghast Ryou could hardly believe could come from a human throat. "Wonder of wonders! Wonder of wonders! Rand!" he shouted as the latter burst through the entrance arch, alarmed; the ex-assassin had probably been hovering nearby, waiting for the pitfall conversation to end. "Contact the temples, the stables, anything and everything! We need to sacrifice a bull- no, a stallion! Make that five! Divine intervention alone can explain what I just heard my brother promise!"
"Leyam," Darius snarled.
"Yes, my King," said Rand, leaving Ryou to hope he knew the maniac was joking. Almost certainly joking. "My King, ambassador Akal Elianth would like to meet you soon."
"Heh? Yes, but I was going to let him stew a little longer."
"I believe he's waited enough."
"Oh damn. Well I will leave you two to enjoy a fine afternoon. Ryou, I do hope you're as tough as my brother says you are, because you will need to be if you're going to keep up with him." With that, Leyam pushed himself up off the bench, grabbed his ornate hat from Rand and swept out with a regal wave and a final leer.
Ryou stood there, fists clenched on his hips, trying to remind himself that being here in this situation, talking about all this openly, was a- a privilege, an improvement on his old life of total silence and cold restraint. Right. Certainly. Totally. Besides, Leyam was the king of this realm and calling him an insensitive jerk would be lèse-majesté and punishable at the very least with a whipping. The man couldn't help himself, anyway; Ryou had already figured out that Leyam stirred up trouble and seized on any weakness with the single-mindedness of a magpie going after shiny objects. It was a by-product of his flawed upbringing, where keeping factions fighting amongst each other and too busy to worry about him had insured his eventual supremacy.
Darius had drawn up next to Ryou while the latter was swallowing all the things he'd wanted to tell his majesty and would never be able to. "Remind me to buy Rand a seah of whatever drink he chooses," he said.
"I'll pitch in on that."
Darius gave the exit out of the atrium a disgruntled look. "Leyam knows me as well as any man still on this earth, yet it pleases him to see me as I was back when I was seventeen."
"I know, it's a failing of big brothers that I share." And just maybe Leyam preferred to tease and pretend he was still dealing with his little brother Darius, keen for battle and pleasure in equal measure, rather than the grown man hardened by years of fighting his king's wars, the one who had grown up to earn that name, Ghan the Beast...
The lovers exchanged morose looks as the force of nature that was Leyam cleared the air and the original issue crept up on them again.
Darius leaned back against the fountain and looked away as he grumbled, "My men are going to wonder what you did to me. If I don't sleep with someone before a battle, they'll think I'm nervous about the coming day."
"If it's just sleeping, I don't mind. I mean sleeping." After all, the nights camping out could get cold, and he and Darius had shared a bed for ages quite innocently. So did many of the Hounds who did not have a relationship beyond that of good friends.
"Do you mean that?"
Ryou gave him an interrogative look, puzzled by the intensity behind the question. "Why?"
"Well, I know a couple of friends who'd warm my blankets without blabbing later that we'd done nothing more than a couple of sisters would."
Ryou couldn't help a short snort of laughter, though there was only a couple of inches of humour in the well. "Is image that important to you?"
"It's my custom," Darius explained with a frown. "That's very important to soldiers. I don't mean the holy rituals like putting my arrows on Inder's altar the night before the battle; if I didn't do that, not a single man under my command would march the next day. But it's the little things, like Jexen and Kaibaroses always having a game of dice, and Terentius wrapping up the war council early so he can have a good night's sleep. It's about confidence, you see? If I don't take someone to my bed, the men will think I'm either sick or too worried to get my blood up. Worse, they'll think it a bad omen. You've never been in a real battle; when two armies match in size and prowess, then everything else, from the whims of the Gods to the morale of the horse-holder's boy, is going to come into play and tip the scale."
He was perfectly serious...Ryou had been getting an education in soldiers as well as everything else; he knew they were as a whole terribly superstitious. These 'customs' Darius talked of would be like the good luck routines of high level sportsmen, only in this case they were there to spare them fatal consequences.
"I think I understand. Okay, if it's that important, far be it from me to stop you from keeping up appearances."
"You don't mind that?
"No, I guess I don't." After all, since it was customary - more customary than keeping faith between men it seemed - nobody would make assumptions about Darius's or Ryou's availability on that basis alone.
His concession earned him a weighing gaze. "Others will think I'm getting laid."
"I don't really care what others think."
The corner of Darius's mouth crooked into a smile. "That's what I thought. Ei, I still don't understand any of this...but fine, we are agreed on the matter. Keep in mind, I will be gone for months at a time after the floods, once the barley is in the ground and the armies back on campaign again."
"That's great, I love to travel."
Darius gave him a troubled look. "You're not a warrior, Ryou."
"Correct. So I'll be somewhere in the back of the army with the Hygeians and cooks and things, out of your way and just close enough to help if some Per Gathas impostors show up again."
"That is not the place for a free man," Darius told him crisply.
"Oh? And staying here waiting for you to come back, assuming you do, is?" asked Ryou in a measured tone that managed to turn the heat in the atrium down to tepid, and maybe even cool.
Darius just reached over and gently slapped Ryou's cheek, making Ryou blink. "I meant that you should be at the heart of the effort, standing with the general and his staff. Maybe, as Leyam says, that restraint of yours will rub off. There's quite a few hotheads amongst the Alliance, and we cannot afford mistakes now. It's still a dangerous position; I would rather you stay here in Sura, out of harm's way, as you are not involved in these wars and do not possess the skills to defend yourself if the day goes against us and a retreat turns to a rout. But I was not going to insult you with the suggestion that you wait for me while weaving a tapestry of my deeds, because then I know you really would castrate me."
"Huh-uh." Ryou caught the hand that'd lingered on his cheek. "Darius, do you understand why I'm asking you to do this? I don't want to take away from you as a man, I-"
"Yeah, yeah," Darius said, his eyes falling to where his thumb was brushing Ryou's lips. "I get it. Hell, if nothing else, I'm a grown man who has left the callowness of youth far behind; it's well time I became a little more Greek in my pleasures."
Ryou's lips twitched beneath the caress. "Just not too much."
"Little chance of that."
Ryou let himself be drawn into the brief kiss. There were chances that Darius would stray a little in the future; generations of ingrained cultural habit did not change that easily. But bar an occasional drunken post-battle tumble, he was willing to try, which was something of a concession right there. It wasn't as if Ryou had any other experience of a long-term relationship to compare all this to. Assyria and its cousin countries had an odd view of male lovers, he knew that much. Friendship stronger than the bonds of man and wife, a friendship that could include sex as well as some awfully romantic declarations of love and dramatic actions to match, yet still just friendship...But Darius was willing to enter into a bond that Ryou was willing to call being lovers, and that was enough for now.
The second arc starts next, probably in two or three weeks to allow me to get ahead with other chapters further ahead.