Warnings: m/m, incest, non-con, some violence
Notes: This is for Nerodi's History Challenge. Big, big thanks to Corinna, Pun and Kirsten Sea for beta reading. I'm not much of a historian myself, and their insights helped make this story much more true to the time. I really appreciate it!
Some thought it a propitious sign, what happened to him the day the sky burned and fell, that it was the hand of the Gods touching him, exalting him, destining him for greatness. Others nervously looked away when he passed, convinced that no one completely human could have survived that firestorm, certain that nothing natural could be so unnaturally smooth and pale. But everyone agreed that he was marked, set apart, not quite one of them. It was both a curse and a blessing, and Alexander Julius Luthorus bore it with as much equanimity as any man, any citizen of Rome, could have.
His lot in life would, no doubt, have been easier if he were not the eldest son of the royal family, his father's chosen heir. Unless his half-brother Lucius somehow managed to supplant him, he would one day rule his father's great empire that stretched from the banks of the Rhine to the Danube to the Euphrates. If he were born into any other aristocratic family, he could have indulged his taste for solitude and study and not been forced into the public eye. He would have been left alone with his beloved books and his collections, free to pursue his scientific interests, to quench his thirst for knowledge.
He would not be on display as he was now, marching with great pomp and ceremony past most of Rome, beside his father Emperor Lionelus and his half-brother Lucius, to the Colosseum for the opening of the season's games. The guards held back the throngs eager for a touch of royal robes, and Alexander threw gold coins, the requisite royal largesse, into the crowd.
"The Gods bless you, my lord," voices cried out.
But he also thought he heard, "Deliver us from the marked one, oh mighty Jupiter."
No one else seemed to notice--not his father or brother or the Imperial Guard, who certainly would not have allowed such an insult to go unpunished--so perhaps it was only his imagination.
They reached the Colossuem and proceeded up to the royal box. His father relished every opportunity to make a grand entrance and swept in with a flourish of his deep purple robes, his hand held up in stately greeting. The crowd rose to its feet and cheered wildly. Alexander and Lucius took their places, to the right and left of their Emperor father, and just a little behind him, as protocol dictated. Lionelus took his seat, and then they did.
The entertainment began--dancing girls from Thrace--and Alexander prepared for a long day of boredom. The half-naked women and gruesome animal slaughter and gladiatorial bloodshed that so delighted the masses, and most elite Romans as well, held no diversion for him.
He sighed heavily and wished more than ever that he were someone else, anywhere but here. Even if he'd been born into a plebian family, he would at least have had a quiet life--minding the store or tending the crops. At the moment, anything seemed preferable to this frivolous waste of time.
The music swelled, and the dancers ended with a flourish. Alexander's mind wandered back to the distant past, as it always did when he had too much time to think. Truth be told, that fateful day was never far away from him even in his busiest moments.
His father's villa lay on the western coast, and when his mother was alive, they spent the summers there amid the waves and sea breezes rather than staying miserably cooped up in the palace as Rome sweltered. These were the happiest memories of Alexander's life, the way the air felt in his lungs as he frolicked on the beach, his mother's slender fingers curved around his as they took their morning walks together.
The coastal landscape was a treasure trove for his young imagination, and he spent the better part of every day exploring the rocks and nests and other hidden places, cataloging the plants and wildlife. The only place he was forbidden to go without a chaperone was the long meadow at the far end of the royal domain--too far away from the villa, in his mother's estimation, to be safe.
Of course, this was the place that fascinated him most. He was independent, even defiant by nature. One morning when he woke well ahead of the sun, early enough that even the slaves were not yet stirring, he took the opportunity to slip out of the house. He ran across the garden, waded through a small stream and climbed a fence. The sun was just beginning to rise when he got to the meadow, giving him enough light to start his investigations. He poked around some low bushes, observing the insect life that made its home among the roots.
He could still see in his mind's eye that moment when the sky went eerily black and then flared red-orange. It had brought to mind stories his nurse used to tell him when he was very little, about wild animals and bandits and malicious ghosts, all the frightening things that lay in wait for children who didn't behave and do as they were told. Funny, he'd thought, that she'd never mentioned the sky might fall on him.
After the fire began to rain down, the details grew less clear in his memory, a confused tangle of sensation, impossible heat and hideous pain and terrible fear. And the image of his father running toward him screaming his name. Of course, he'd never seen his father run anywhere for anything, either before that day or after it, so perhaps that part was only a dream.
There was something else, though, that he was convinced had not simply been his imagination. He'd seen something falling along with the sky, he was certain of it. There was a fuzzy picture in his mind, although he could never quite put into words what it looked like. He had no frame of reference to describe it. But there had been something. Someone. He'd felt it. A presence. Someone had arrived in that hail of fire, and that someone would be important to him one day. He didn't understand how he knew this or what it meant, but he never doubted it.
Since he was nine years old, he'd been waiting.
He was wise enough to keep this knowledge to himself, even as a boy. His father would not have approved if he'd gone around talking of "visions", and people were already wary enough of him as it was. Besides, whatever he'd seen that day belonged only to him, and no one else had a right to it. In the long hours when he had lain in bed recovering from his injuries, his body a crucible of suffering, he'd held onto his secret, turned it over in his mind, like something bright and shiny, a reason to go on living.
Alexander surfaced out of his reverie long enough to notice that the program had progressed to the gladiatorial match. He recognized one of the combatants, Flavius, a former solider who had fallen on hard times. He was always a great favorite with the crowd. The other was unfamiliar, a foreigner, large and blonde and rather grizzled, probably from one of the northern tribes.
The foreigner landed a blow to Flavius' right arm, and he dropped his sword. The crowd groaned. But Flavius somehow managed to spin and roll and avoid the deathblow. A dodge, a feint and a rather cunning distraction as Flavius kicked dirt into the blonde man's eyes, and he was able to regain his sword. His right arm was too weak to hold it up, so he was forced to wield it with the left. He battled clumsily, but the foreigner overestimated his advantage and lunged when he should have retreated. Flavius bent backwards, showing surprising agility, and managed to put his entire weight into the upward thrust. The foreigner let out a hideous shriek. He staggered a step or two. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell.
The audience jumped to its feet, their applause deafening.
But the real test for Flavius was still to come. The games reflected the taste of the ruling emperor, and Lionelus did not admire limping victories. If a battle wasn't decisive, he tended to consider it lost. Flavius held his injured arm against his body, knelt on the ground below the royal box and awaited his fate.
Lionelus surveyed him, his expression revealing nothing.
"What do you say, my sons?" he asked. "Does he please us? Or does he die?"
"He should die, Father," Lucius said, with vehemence. "He has saved his sorry skin, but he has failed to entertain us."
"Alexander?" his father prompted.
"He should live, Father."
"And why should he be so favored, Alexander?" his father asked.
"Because Flavius won this match despite an injury to his sword arm, which shows strength of will, a gift for strategy, as well as great skill in fighting. And he is the one the people come to see, the one they cheer. To spare him is a small thing, but winning the favor of the citizenry is invaluable."
"I did not think you cared for the games," Lionelus said, apparently surprised by his knowledge.
"I do not, Father. But, as you yourself have often said, it is imperative to understand the hearts and minds of your subjects, or you will not rule them for long."
Lionelus considered a moment and then gave the thumbs up sign. The gladiator humbly bowed his head, rose to a roaring ovation, and left the arena.
Lionelus stood, signaling the end of the day's festivities. He turned to Alexander, "Mercy, or the appearance of it, can be a useful tool. But it has no value if practiced simply for its own sake. You would do well to remember that, my son." He turned on his heel and made his exit.
Alexander was about to follow when Lucius knocked into him, jostling him roughly. Alexander glared.
"Spouting father's longwinded philosophy back to him, eh? You must think you're very clever."
Alexander regarded his brother distastefully. "Only compared to some."
Lucius' face darkened. "Be careful, brother." He made the last word sound like something dirty. "Our father's favor is more fickle than any courtesan's. Neither of us will have won anything until this game has been played to the end." Lucius took another step forward, crowding Alexander. "And I do mean to be the victor. Make no mistake about it."
"If it were an ale-drinking contest, no doubt you would be," Alexander said, before sweeping away.
All the way back to the palace, he could feel Lucius glowering at him from behind, and he was uncomfortably reminded just how dangerous it was to turn your back on a jackal.
Back in his chamber at the palace, he found his most trusted advisor Gaius Agrippa Sullivanus pacing by the windows, waiting for him.
Gaius bowed in polite greeting. "My lord."
"Gaius," Alexander said, glad to see him. "What word have you brought me from the Senate?"
He had consulted Gaius on his plans to improve the water supply in Rome, something he foresaw as a problem in the not-so-distant future. He had outlined a series of steps to be taken, from drilling more wells to improving irrigation to the construction of a new aqueduct to bring water in from the springs in the Apennines. He'd even worked with a team of engineers to develop blueprints. His father, not surprisingly, had been little interested, since it involved spending money rather than making it. So Alexander had turned to Gaius for help in drumming up support in the Senate. Gaius had been the young protege of his mother's father and practically an uncle to Alexander. There was no one else he trusted to understand his vision and supply the political savvy to help him achieve it.
"Privately, there is great interest, my lord. Many among the Senators believe as you do, that a drought would seriously disrupt life in the city and our current water resources would soon prove inadequate if there were a serious lack of rainfall."
Alexander raised an eyebrow. "But?"
Gaius let out a sigh. "They are not willing to act without a formal directive from your father."
"Why am I not surprised? The spineless cowards."
"Can you not convince the emperor of the wisdom of your plan?" Gaius asked.
Alexander sighed. "My father does not like to spend good money on such luxuries as water for his people, I am afraid." Gaius' expression grew troubled. Alexander held up his hand. "I know. I should not say such things."
"Your desire to take care of your people is very noble, my lord. But you must be careful. Your father and brother--"
Gaius did not complete the sentence, but then, he did not have to. Alexander knew perfectly well that they were not to be trusted.
"Your counsel is well reasoned, Gaius, and well appreciated. I will apply to my father again and see if I cannot persuade him of the political advantages of my proposal. In the meantime, do what you can to move the Senators over to our way of thinking."
Gaius bowed his head. "It will be done, my lord." He took his leave.
Alexander sat down at his writing table and took out a set of architectural plans he'd commissioned. Improving the water supply was not the only project he had his heart set on. He envisioned a sweeping building campaign, bringing theaters and baths, new roads and aqueducts to cities and towns throughout the empire. His gaze drifted over the drawings, and the elegant structures began to take form in his imagination.
One of his father's slaves appeared and interrupted him. "My lord." The boy knelt.
"His majesty the emperor commands your presence in his chamber."
The boy left. Alexander let out his breath. His father's summons rarely signified anything good. No doubt he had learned of Alexander's efforts and wished to express his disapproval of them. Alexander would have liked to put off the confrontation, but one did not keep his most imperial majesty waiting. He straightened his robes and walked briskly to his father's chamber.
Inside, Lionelus sat in his chair by the windows, looking out over his domain. Alexander knelt in front of him as decorum required, even of the next-in-line to the throne.
"What is your bidding, my lord?" he asked, his head humbly lowered.
"Rise, Alexander. I wish to speak with you."
Alexander stood. "I am at your service, my lord."
His father smiled. "Indeed?"
Alexander's jaw tightened. He had to drop his eyes, so Lionelus would not read the truth in them, that his son did not admire him. To be sure, Lionelus was a crafty survivalist who had dodged assassins and coup attempts for forty years, ruling Rome longer than anyone else ever had. Rivals mysteriously disappeared. Critics suffered unfortunate "accidents." And Lionelus remained the most powerful man in the world.
But his father had no vision. He thought nothing of his power beyond how he could wield it to make himself richer. He was talented in his way, a clever strategist, a good manager, but he was not a great man.
Alexander, on the other hand, would never content himself to be anything less.
"You have been making charts and pictures and diagrams again, Alexander. And showing them to people," his father said, in a disgruntled tone. "I insist that you stop."
"But, father, my meteorological observations have shown a pattern of declining rainfall. An effort to increase the water supply like the one I'm proposing would help guard against a prolonged drought."
His father waved his hand dismissively. "If we need more rain, then we must pray to the Gods to send it. It is as simple as that."
Alexander scowled at his father. It was not wise to show his disdain so openly, but he could not help it. His father believed in the Gods about as much as he did.
"I suppose supplicating imaginary deities is a great deal less expensive that actually doing something about the problem."
His father smiled. "I'm glad we understand one another."
"People's lives could be at stake, father."
Lionelus stroked Alexander's cheek. "You should think less about other people and more about your own well-being." His father's fingers tightened on his jaw, digging into his flesh. "More about how you can make yourself pleasing to your emperor. You do wish to please me, don't you, Alexander?"
Alexander dropped his gaze to the floor. "Of course, father." He made his voice soft, yielding. He had learned that when his father threatened it was wise to appease him.
But he did not tremble. Would not.
His father might hold his future, his very life, in his hands. But Alexander's dignity remained his own. His father could never take that. Only Alexander could surrender it.
And that was something a great man never did.
Alexander hurried back to his own chamber, glad the ordeal was over. Of course, he had no intention of stopping his campaign to improve the water supply, but he would be much more careful how he went about it. Old Ennio, the slave who had cared for him since he was a boy, helped him undress and prepare for bed. Alexander slipped beneath the covers, and Ennio brought him his casket of treasures.
"May I get you anything else, my lord?"
Alexander shook his head. "No, thank you. Goodnight, Ennio."
"Goodnight, young master."
Alexander waited for him to go and then opened his casket. After his mother died, he'd carefully collected things that reminded him of her, and every night before he went to bed, he would sift through them, making certain he touched each individual item, as if that could somehow bring her closer. It had become something of a ritual, and even as a man of twenty-two, he still couldn't fall asleep until he'd completed it.
He took out an abalone shell his mother had found at the shore during one of their summer holidays. He remembered how she'd laughed as she'd handed it to him. She thought it looked like a funny man with a very large nose. He turned the shell over in his palm and smiled. He moved on to the black pearl she'd gotten on a trip to the East and a piece of lace that had come from one of her favorite gowns. He had a certain order he enjoyed and catalogued his collection the same way every time. When he came to the gold signet ring she'd always worn, however, he couldn't find it. He sat up in bed and checked more carefully, took out all the other things, looked under the pillows and blankets. But it just wasn't there.
He got up and hurriedly searched the room, emptying drawers, upending tables and bureaus. He had grown quite frantic when it finally dawned on him. Lucius. He would be looking for a way to get even after what happened at the games, and he knew perfectly well that the quickest way to get to Alexander was through his mother. Not to mention that Lucius was resentful of her. Lillia had been Lionelus' equal, his wife, his empress. Lucius' own mother was the nurse who had tended Lillia during her final illness. When Lucius was born, she had been sent away, and Lucius had been raised as if he were a legitimate son. But no one in Rome ever forgot that his mother was a lowborn peasant girl, least of all Lucius. Alexander's noble pedigree was a constant goad to him.
"I'll teach that damned brat a lesson!" Alexander swore.
He knocked everything off his desk in a fit of rage and stormed off to Lucius' chamber to retrieve his stolen property. He was just about to burst into his brother's room when the low murmur of voices stopped him. He went still and quiet. The door was not quite closed, and Alexander carefully pushed it open enough to peer inside. What he saw made his stomach turn, but he couldn't make himself stop staring.
"Oh," Lucius moaned. He was lying face down on his bed, legs splayed, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
"Yes, yes," their father chanted, as he thrust deeply into Lucius' pliant body.
"Father, please," Lucius gasped. "Fuck me, father."
Lionelus made a deep rumbling sound in his chest. "You belong to me." He bit Lucius possessively on the neck. "Say it."
"I'm yours, father. Yours."
"Mmmmm. Alexander "
It was little more than a whisper, so soft that Alexander could have convinced himself he hadn't heard it. But the way his father looked at him, touched him. He'd always known what he wanted, and there was certainly no denying it now.
He stumbled back a step, sickened. His head spun, the sound of his father and brother's rutting pounding in his ears. He turned and ran, silently, all the way back to his chamber. He made it to the basin just in time to empty his stomach.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise. His father and brother were both men of great appetites, and Lucius never shied away from anything that might make him the favorite. But that they would actually-- Clearly, Alexander had dangerously underestimated his family's capacity for perversity.
It struck him then just how right Gaius had been to urge caution. If his father and brother had entered into some sort of unholy alliance, they were more dangerous than ever.
The long sweltering summer days gripped Rome without mercy, settling on the land like a veil of dust. For months, the entire populace of the city had been watching and waiting and holding its collective breath, hoping against hope for rain. But there had been none.
Lionelus, faced with the specter of widespread civil unrest, was forced at last to acknowledge the problem. Alexander cherished the hope that his father would see reason and begin to implement the emergency steps of his plan. The emperor announced, instead, that he had enlisted the aid of Aulus, the head priest of the Temple of Jupiter. They would hold a special augury to consult the Gods and see how they could be propitiated to send rain.
Alexander was disappointed, though not particularly surprised, that his father had decided on a course of window dressing rather than any real attempt to remedy the situation. He continued to work quietly behind the scenes with Gaius, trying to get the people behind him. It was an extremely delicate situation. Alexander could not afford to offend his father. On the other hand, if something wasn't done, if the people were offered no relief or at least some sense that their leaders were trying to help them, nobody in the imperial family would be safe.
Unfortunately, the Senate remained too paralyzed by fear of Alexander's father to follow his common sense suggestions. At Alexander's behest, Gaius kept constant pressure on key Senators, but all they did was hem and haw and stammer pitifully that any further consideration of his plan should wait until after the emperor had supplicated the Gods. Alexander could only hope that once this foolishness was over they could get down to serious business.
On the day of the augury, the sky was as glowering and cloudless as it had been every day for the past month. There was no hint of moisture, much less rain. As Alexander processed with his family to the Capitoline Hill, he could feel the restless, jagged energy running through the crowd. For weeks, it had been impossible to buy fresh fruit or vegetables at the market. In some districts, stores of grain were perilously low. Hollow-eyed children begged in the streets. It was a tinderbox in search of a spark, and yet his father paraded along with perfect composure, as if he had nothing to worry about.
Alexander could not be certain if his father was putting on a display of outward calm in order to keep the peace or if he truly did not care that his own people were on the brink of starvation and revolt.
The procession turned down the Via Sacra, toward the tabernaculum where the ritual would take place, the square already thronging with spectators. There was a dais for the royal entourage, as well as key Senators and representatives of Rome's most important families.
Alexander and his family took their places among the other dignitaries. The priest Aulus stood in front of the tabernaculum, flanked by his assistants. He was sweating profusely in his heavy, ornamental robes, his beefy face bright red from the heat. One of his assistants kept whispering in his ear, prompting him what needed to be done next, and it was difficult for Alexander to keep his expression appropriately serious. When Aulus did finally understand that he was supposed to pick up the capis, the earthen vessel used to offer a libation to Jupiter, his hands shook with nervousness.
All this only reinforced the opinion Alexander had always held of him, that he was a weak-willed fool who had no business in public life. He only held this office because Alexander's father had found it beneficial to ally himself with the man's wealthy and influential family. This made Alexander contemptuous as it was. That his father would actually turn to such a simpleton during a time of real trouble was utterly beyond his comprehension.
The assistants lit incense on the altar. Musicians seated on the other side of the dais began to play a delicate tune intended to please the Gods.
Aulus raised the capis in offering to the heavens and entreated, "Oh, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and all you other Gods and spirits that it is proper to invoke." He stumbled over the words. "I ask that if it is good and right that we may learn how to win your favor and bring on the rains that it may be done."
A flock of birds happened to move across the sky at that moment. "It is a sign," Aulus proclaimed. "The Gods grant us permission to move forward with the augury."
Of course, Alexander realized if no birds had flown past that would also have been a sign, meaning exactly the same thing.
Aulus turned to face the tabernaculum, his back to the spectators. One of the assistants produced a silver salver that contained the liver of a boar that had been ritually sacrificed. Aulus held up the ceremonial blade, asking for the Gods' benediction, and then cut the boar's liver into twelve equal parts. He studied the results while everyone in the crowd waited expectantly.
Suddenly, it all made perfect, chilling sense to Alexander. Why his father would turn to a spineless fool like Aulus. Why a man who had no faith in the Gods would look to them for a sign. His father didn't want guidance or even a miracle. All he really needed was a gesture, to protect his own position. To show the grumbling rabbles that he understood their privation, that he suffered, too. To keep the desperate throngs from setting their sights on the imperial palace.
The back of Alexander's neck went cold. What his father needed, he realized, was a sacrifice.
Aulus turned back to the audience with a grave expression on his weak-chinned face. "The Gods have sent us a message. In order to win back their favor, his most revered majesty must render unto them something of great value."
Alexander's heart beat faster.
"His majesty must forfeit his eldest son," Aulus pronounced.
A gasp ran through the crowd. Lionelus looked straight ahead, perfectly calmly. Lucius actually smirked.
Alexander jumped to his feet. "No! This entire proceeding is a mockery. The Gods give us wits and strength and will to help ourselves. And that is exactly what we must do in this time of trouble. I have a plan to bring more water into the city. If we begin now--"
"Silence!" Lionelus rose grandly to his feet. "Perhaps my son's lack of piety is why the Gods have chosen him for this sacrifice. What is clear is that the good of Rome must come before a father's tender feelings. What the Gods have asked will be done."
But Lionelus motioned to his guards, and they took Alexander into custody. He was not used to such manhandling and fought to break free of their rough grip. But there were far more of them, and they forced him to his knees. They fastened heavy iron chains to his wrists and ankles. The crowd buzzed with excitement. There were cries of: "Give the Gods what they want!" and "This is why he was marked!"
Alexander continued to fight his restraints, but it was no use. He was at his father's mercy now.
Lionelus approached him, stroked his cheek. "So beautiful. You would have been the favorite, you know," he said, quietly enough that only Alexander could hear. "But you just had to defy me."
"Father, please! I only wanted--"
"Goodbye, Alexander." He turned away without so much as a backward glance.
Lucius stepped forward. "I will think of this moment often, I assure you, brother, when I am the Pater Patriae." He took Alexander's chin roughly in his hand and forced a kiss on him, Lucius' tongue pushing its way inside his mouth like a triumphant conqueror, Alexander helpless to resist. "I told you I'd win."
Alexander tried to spit out the taste of his brother's perversion, and Lucius walked off laughing.
"The sacrifice will be made at the sacred grotto at Praeneste," Lionelus announced grandly to the crowd. "We will win honor the Gods as they have asked, and the rains will soon fall."
The crowd cheered wildly as Alexander was hauled away.
Alexander had never experienced a greater sense of humiliation as he was driven through the city in a cart used to transport criminals. People lined up by the side of the road and jeered and threw things. It was some small relief when they finally passed through the gates and left the populated areas behind, setting out for Praeneste, several hours away. At least, the road wasn't busy, and there was no one to witness his shame.
The journey was over rough terrain, and Alexander was tossed and jarred in the back of the cart, the chains banging against him, leaving bruises. But the worst part was the dread, nothing to do but think of what awaited him in Praeneste. And listen to the bawdy prattle of the two guards--Lascarius and Florio, he learned from their conversation--as they boasted about kills they had made in battle and women they had bedded.
Alexander stared at the passing landscape, drinking in every detail with hungry attention, the exact shade of the sky, the curve of the willow trees, the shadow of a hawk flying high above them. It was magical thinking, he realized, to believe the sheer force of his concentration might somehow make the journey pass slower, give him a little longer to live. But he needed to hold onto some pale hope, and this was all he had.
Too soon, though, the towers of Praeneste came into view. The guards took the old dusty road to the sanctuary and pulled the cart up near the entrance of the sacred caves. They jumped down from the box and dragged Alexander out. He tried to resist, tried to hold onto the rough planks of the cart. He wasn't ready for this, wasn't prepared to die. But there were two of them, and they were stronger than he was. They managed to pull him free and force him to his feet.
Lascarius brandished a dagger and pressed the blade against Alexander's neck. "You can do as you're told, my lord, or you can die right here." He pushed him forward. "Now, walk!"
Alexander stumbled, made clumsy by the chains. The guards herded him toward the entrance.
"Is this where all my father's political enemies end up?"
"Get inside. And shut your mouth." Lascarius shoved him and he lurched into the cave, almost falling. Both guards sauntered in after him.
"Do you want to do it?" Lascarius asked.
"I wouldn't deprive you of the honor," Florio answered, magnanimously. "But, I say, he has no further need of that fine robe he's wearing, do you think?"
Lascarius shook his head. "Surely, he'll be overdressed for the underworld."
"Then I should help him, should I not? Relieve of him of the extra burden for his trip to Hades."
"You're a fine fellow, Florio. I always say so."
The guards shared a laugh. Alexander's jaw tightened in rage.
"Ah now, my lord. Don't put up a fuss," Florio said, reading the rebelliousness in Alexander's eye. "You'll only make this more difficult on yourself."
He took a step toward Alexander, who fell back. But there was nowhere to go. The cave hemmed him in. Florio reached for him, and Alexander tried to fend him off. The manacles hampered him, though, and Florio struck him hard across the face, dazing him. The man's hands moved quickly and efficiently as they stripped him, and Alexander had the sickening realization that he'd done this before. Probably often.
It was damp and chill in the cave, and Alexander shivered. He was too proud to shield himself with his hands, but the men's insistent gaze on his body made his skin crawl. Since the day the sky burned and fell, he'd tried to hide his deformity as much as he could. He wore long sleeves, heavy robes, even on the hottest days. He never allowed anyone to see him naked except for Old Ennio.
Lascarius jerked him away from the wall to get a better look at him. He circled around, assessing him as if he were a piece of merchandise. "I'd heard rumors," the guard said. "But I only half believed it." He stroked a calloused hand down Alexander's back. "Gods, Florio. He's as soft and smooth as a girl." The hand drifted down to his ass. "And it's been too long since I've had a girl."
Alexander fought back desperately, elbowing the man in the gut, trying to use the chains as a weapon. But Lascarius moved faster and backhanded Alexander across the face. This time Alexander could taste blood in his mouth. The guard wrapped his arm around Alexander's neck and pressed his forearm into his throat. Alexander started to black out, and Lascarius took the opportunity to force him down onto his hands and knees. He dropped to the ground behind Alexander. There was the rustle of clothing, and then Alexander could feel the brush of the man's cock against his ass.
"No!" He flailed frantically, but the chains made it nearly impossible to fight back.
Lascarius held his hips in a vise-like grip. "You can do this with the chains around your neck choking the life out of you," he threatened. "Or you can stay still, and I'll let you keep breathing. The choice is yours, my lord. But this is going to happen. So you may as well stop fighting."
Florio knelt in front of him. "He's right, my lord. Why not make it easy on yourself?" He held Alexander's chin tightly in his hand, his thumb stroking Alexander's lips, tracing the scar that split them. "That's going to look so pretty stretched around my pecker."
He hitched up his tunic and unfastened his loincloth. His cock bobbed in Alexander's face, hard and leaking and rather foul smelling. Alexander gritted his teeth and resisted as the guard tried to force his face to his groin. He could hear Lascarius spitting into his own hand, felt the man's fingers on his cheeks, pulling them apart. He had the strangest feeling, as if he were floating away from his own body, the same way he'd felt the day the sky burned and fell, the last time reality had been too horrific to bear.
He'd never been touched in pleasure, and now he was going to die violated, sullied. Surely, a great man would not have met his end in such an ignoble fashion.
"Get away from him," a voice boomed out.
A figure came from the interior of the cave and stepped into the light that flooded in from the entrance. It was a young man, long dark hair, dressed in the garb of a farmer.
Lascarius laughed. "Do you plan to make us, peasant?"
"Yes," the boy said simply.
And then-- There was flame, arcing through the air, flame that somehow came from the boy. The guards screamed in surprise, leaped to their feet and ran.
The young man--if it was a man at all who could shoot fire from his eyes--knelt beside Alexander. "You're hurt." Fingers gently brushed his bloodied cheek.
Alexander could not help flinching, much to his shame. It appeared greatness would have to wait for another day.
"Don't be frightened," his rescuer said. "I mean you no harm. Are you injured anywhere I can't see?"
The implication was clear, and Alexander colored deeply, humiliated by what the boy had witnessed.
"No," he answered stiffly.
"Good." The boy sounded genuinely relieved. He stood up and held out his hand.
The chains made him awkward, so he took the young man's hand and allowed him to help him to his feet.
"Let's get these off," the boy said.
"I'm afraid the key is on its way back to Rome along with those cowards."
The boy smiled, a sweet expression. "We don't need a key."
He ripped the iron cuffs first from Alexander's wrists and then his ankles. The chains fell to the ground, and Alexander could only stare.
The boy jerked his head toward the interior of the cave. "Come on."
Alexander hurriedly pulled on his robe and followed. They went further and further into the cave, torches on the walls lighting the way. After a few minutes, though, he saw daylight up ahead, and they emerged into a large sanctuary. There was a group of elegantly designed buildings, their marble facades gleaming in the bright light, surrounded by lush gardens, groves of trees, fountains, a pool of water for swimming.
"What is this place?" Alexander asked.
"It was once a sanctuary for your Gods. Forgotten now," the boy said. "But it's all right. The caves are regarded as sacred by the locals and off limits. No one will bother us here."
"I don't believe you're a God," Alexander challenged.
The boy only smiled. "Then you're far wiser than most."
This was a little nonplussing. He'd expected grand pronouncements, a fiery display. Still, Alexander had been raised by Lionelus. He stood up very straight, lifted his chin.
"What is your name?" he asked, in his most imperious voice.
This only made the boy's smile widen. "Kal-El."
"Where do come from? How do you make fire come out of your eyes?"
"If you have trouble with the notion of Gods, then I doubt you'll believe this either."
"I'll be the judge of what I do or do not believe."
Even to his own ear, he sounded rather pompous, and Kal-El laughed out loud. Alexander tried to marshal his outrage. He was a member of the royal family, by some miracle might still be emperor someday, but finally, it was no use. He laughed along with Kal-El until he had to wipe tears from the corners of his eyes. It had been too long. He could not remember laughing since his mother died.
"I am Alexander," he said, more humbly. "And I really would like to know more about you. If you'll tell me."
Kal-El looked away. "It is not that I don't want to tell you. I just don't know how to put it into words."
Kal-El sighed. "Do you-- believe there are other worlds besides this one?"
Alexander frowned. "You mean like Hades or Mt. Olympus or the Elysian fields?"
"No. I mean out there." He gestured toward the sky. "Amongst the stars."
"I hadn't considered that possibility before, but I'd be fascinated to know the answer."
"Of course. Any man with a desire for knowledge would."
Kal-El studied him, as if deciding something. Finally, he said, "Then this is one answer I can give you, Alexander. There are other worlds. Many of them, in fact. And I came from one very, very far away."
"But how is that possible?"
"My people had knowledge more advanced than your people's. They understood how to travel through the heavens. Something went very wrong on my planet, and everyone there was faced with extinction. My parents had warned the others of this possibility, but no one chose to listen. Finally, all my parents could do was try to save me. They built a ship and put me in it and sent me here. The day fire fell from the sky, if you recall it, was when my ship landed."
Alexander had been waiting so many years, and yet, it was hard to believe that the moment was finally here. The fuzzy image that had lingered in his memory had been a ship, unlike any he'd ever seen before. And that presence he'd felt was Kal-El.
"You don't look as surprised as I would have thought."
"I was there," Alexander said, his voice raw. "I saw. Your-- ship. The fire."
Kal-El stared, at first in disbelief, and then in sorrow. Finally he reached out and ran his hand gently along the curve of Alexander's skull as if in apology. It was not something Alexander would have permitted from anyone else, but the touch of Kal-El's fingers sent a sharp sense of awareness through him, a hot jolt of connection. There was no doubt that this was it. His destiny, at long last.
"I want to know everything," he whispered urgently. "Tell me."
Kal-El studied him. Finally, he shrugged. "As you wish." He turned and walked toward one of the buildings, and Alexander followed.
On the outside, the building was ordinary enough, although of exquisite design. When he stepped inside, there was the usual vestibule. But off it was something unlike anything he'd ever seen before, a room that seemed to swirl with iridescent clouds of many colors.
"What is it?"
"Memories. Knowledge. Everything that's left of my people."
Alexander stared. "What-- How--"
Kal-El nodded toward it. "Just go into the light. It gets inside your thoughts and will explain anything you want to know." He moved toward the door. "Come find me when you're finished."
He went back outside, and Alexander stepped into the room, holding his breath in amazement.
It was many, many hours later when Alexander finally staggered back out into the daylight. He found Kal-El sitting by the edge of the pool, trailing one foot in the water, and joined him.
"Your people came here before," he said, still a little dazed from the experience.
"And you realize who they were?"
"I thought it was all a legend. Superstition."
Kal-El laughed, humorlessly. "No. Just a lie."
"Do you-- I know you're very strong. And the, uh, fire. What else can you do?"
"Move fast. See through things. Everything but lead, at least. And--" He ducked his head. "Fly."
"Fly?" Alexander asked, his throat suddenly dry.
Kal-El nodded, not meeting his eye.
"Do you understand how much power you have?" Alexander asked, not quite able to keep the awe out of his voice.
"Yes," Kal-El said, flatly.
"All the things you could do?"
"You mean pretend to be a God? Since that's what my kind apparently like to do." There was bitterness in his voice.
"I meant the good you could do. Put an end to war. Crime. Protect people from the vagaries of the weather. Save them from this merciless drought. You could usher in a whole new age of justice and enlightenment."
Kal-El did not answer or look up from his intent contemplation of the water.
"You don't have to be like them," Alexander said softly, his eyes fastened on Kal-El. "You could be truly great."
Kal-El met his eyes. "Don't you mean you could be great?"
Alexander would not look away, would not back down. "Yes, I mean that, too. I was born to rule Rome, Kal-El. And it's not a matter of chance that I was there when you fell from the sky. I've been looking for something--for you--since that day. Now with you by my side, I can finally put my vision into action, create a better future, a better life, for all Romans. We will be great together. Our names will go down in legend."
Kal-El smiled softly. "Perhaps I am a simpler man than you, Alexander. Perhaps I prefer peace and quiet to greatness." He got to his feet. "Besides, it's too hot for such serious discussions."
He undid the knot at his waist and let the simple wrap he wore around his hips fall to the ground. Alexander knew it was unseemly to stare, but he could not help following the strong lines of Kal-El's body with his eyes, from the fine bones of his ankles to the shapely calves to the well-muscled thighs, past his impressive manhood, along his flat stomach and powerful chest, rippling arms, to the finely sculpted features of his beautiful face. If Kal-El was representative of his race, it was no wonder Alexander's ancestors had fancied them Gods.
Kal-El stood still, his expression an invitation, letting Alexander look as much as he wanted. Finally, he said, "Are you coming? Or are you going to bake in the sun?"
He dove into the pool, his body an elegant arc against the blue sky, before cutting cleanly through the water.
He surfaced and smiled. "It feels so much better in here."
Alexander was torn between desire and unease, and it left him strangely paralyzed. He could not just get up and walk away. He certainly could not take off his clothes in front of Kal-El. It was bad enough that the boy had already witnessed the scene in the cave with the guards. Alexander would not willingly put his unnatural body on display before true perfection.
When Alexander did not answer, Kal-El swam back to him. "Come."
Wet fingers skimmed over his skin, finding the fastenings of his robes and releasing them. The fabric slid from his body. He felt hot all over, and it had nothing to do with the sun.
Kal-El eased him into the water. "Better, don't you think?"
Alexander nodded, a little self-conscious.
Kal-El smiled and leaned in to whisper, "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." And playfully dunked him.
Alexander sputtered when he broke the surface. Kal-El swam away, glancing back over his shoulder, laughing, daring him to follow.
Alexander took off with a strong kick. There was a dizzying buzz along his naked skin, a hot ache in his belly, and he had this irresistible urge to laugh and never stop. He had long dreamed of some other life, in which he was not cloistered behind the gates of the royal palace. Now it was his, and he was eager to discover all its pleasures.
They swam for a long while and then napped in the shade, nude, letting their skin dry in the warm air. Only half a day in Kal-El's company, and Alexander had already thrown off an entire lifetime of embarrassed modesty. Kal-El was just so comfortable in his own body that it felt natural to Alexander to be naked, too.
When he woke up, the sun was low on the horizon. Kal-El was already awake, lying on his side, watching him. "You looked very peaceful."
Alexander blinked. "I suppose I was."
Kal-El smiled. "You sound surprised."
"Peaceful is not a word I would generally use to describe my life."
"No, I suppose it wouldn't be."
Alexander studied him. "According to the memories, you were just a child when you came."
"What happened to you?"
"I was found by a farm couple. Good people who raised me as their own."
"Did they tell you where you'd come from?"
Kal-El's expression turned sorrowful. "I always knew I was different. That I could do things other people couldn't. My parents taught me to hide my abilities from strangers, that it wasn't safe for anyone else to know. But they didn't tell me why I was different, not until the typhoid hit. My mother died before we even realized what was happening, and then my father got very sick. That's when he finally told me. Then he was gone, too. And I was alone."
Alexander longed to reach out to him, to touch his hand, stroke his cheek, but he didn't know if it would be the right thing. Maybe there wasn't any comfort for this kind of pain. There had never been for Alexander. He might not have been orphaned when his mother died, but he had been left by himself. There was no consolation for that.
"How did you come to this place?" Alexander asked.
Kal-El shrugged. "Something seemed to call me. And I didn't know what else to do. So I followed, and it led me here. I found the room with the memories, and then I understood. Everything."
Alexander drew up his courage and touched Kal-El's arm. "I'm sorry about your parents."
"I wish they hadn't lied to me," he said, softly.
"I'm sure they were only trying to protect you."
"Or they were ashamed."
Alexander, emboldened, brushed his fingers lightly across Kal-El's cheek. "Impossible."
Kal-El lowered his eyes. "I'm not anything I thought I was." His voice was a painful whisper.
"Yes, you are," Alexander said, firmly. "You're still their son."
"But they're gone. And I've just been here. Waiting."
Kal-El's eyes were bottomless, and Alexander could see in them a sense of anticipation that he knew so well. Kal-El felt their connection too, and suddenly Alexander was too aware of his own nakedness, how close Kal-El was, that Alexander could feel the heat rising off his bare skin.
Kal-El's gaze never wavered. "Alexander--" He touched his arm lightly, and Alexander felt it in his cock, a sharp jolt of arousal, that was not anything he was used to.
He sat up. "It's starting to get a little cool, don't you think?" Kal-El was so beautiful, and Alexander wanted so much. But he didn't know how to do this, and he wasn't used to feeling so out of his depth.
"I'm--" Kal-El's expression was apologetic.
"I just-- Could use something to eat. I'm rather hungry."
Kal-El moved away. "Of course. I should have offered you something before." He got to his feet and wound his wrap around his hips. "Come. Let us see what there is for dinner."
Alexander kept his eyes lowered. He pulled on his robe and followed Kal-El into one of the buildings. There was a low table with benches, and Kal-El motioned him to it. Alexander watched as Kal-El set out bread and fruit, olives and cheese. He joined Alexander at the table, and they ate, saying little, a sense of strain between them that Alexander regretted terribly.
Afterwards, he helped Kal-El put away the food, and by the time they were finished, he found himself yawning. It had been an eventful day, and he was more tired than he'd realized.
"You need to rest," Kal-El said, sympathetically. "Let me show you to a bedroom."
Kal-El led him up a flight of stairs to the second story, down a long hall, to a room at the end of it. He opened the door and stood back to let Alexander step inside.
"There is a good breeze that comes through these windows at night. I hope you won't be too hot."
"I'm sure it will be very comfortable."
"I'm next door, if you need anything. Goodnight, Alexander." He nodded and left Alexander to sleep.
Alexander let out a sigh. Tomorrow, he would figure out some way to restore their easy companionship, but now he was too tired to do anything but go to bed. He took off his robe and draped it over a convenient chair, pulled back the bed linens and settled down for the night.
But after several hours of tossing and turning, he had to make his peace with the fact that he just wasn't going to be able to sleep. His thoughts kept turning to Kal-El. The warm golden honey of his skin that made Alexander's finger curl with the desire to touch. Strong, perfect body that he imagined pressed to his own. Bright, serious green eyes he could happily spend the rest of his life looking into. He cock was so hard it ached. No matter how he turned, his body throbbed, demanded satisfaction.
Alexander had always been so ill at ease with his physical imperfections that he rarely pleasured himself. Besides, he had a Stoic's philosophy and believed the tempests of the body should be carefully controlled, not given in to with abandon the way his father and brother did. Now, though, he was too desperate to let any of that stand in the way. He pulled away his loincloth, released his cock, closed his eyes and started to stroke himself. He murmured softly, the pleasure almost unbearably intense as he imagined a larger hand, a different touch, on his heated flesh.
There was a soft rustling, and Alexander's eyes popped open. He gasped. Kal-El was standing in the doorway, framed by moonlight, watching intently. The heat in Alexander's belly intensified, and he couldn't make himself pull his hand away from his straining erection.
"Are you trying to kill me?" Kal-El whispered hoarsely. He sat down on the edge of the bed. "You're so beautiful." He pushed Alexander's hand away and took over the job of stroking him.
It felt so good, but he had a sharp flash of body memory, how those guards had touched him, what they'd wanted to do. Kal-El was much stronger, and Alexander would be utterly at his mercy.
"No. Stop. I can't--" He flailed, starting to panic.
"Ssshhh." Kal-El gentled him. "Just let me. I won't hurt you or do anything you don't want. I promise."
Alexander had never been one to trust promises, but with Kal-El everything was different. He took a deep breath and relaxed into Kal-El's touch, the sight of his cock in Kal-El's fist so erotic it was hard to believe that it was happening to him. He thrust his hips up, his body begging for more.
"Yes, yes," Kal-El murmured. He bent his head, and Alexander barely choked back a scream.
Kal-El's hot, wet mouth on him was beyond any kind of pleasure he'd ever imagined. He ran his hands through Kal-El's hair, pressing him closer. Kal-El took him deeper into his throat. So tight, so good, and Alexander squeezed his eyes shut and called Kal-El's name as he came in his mouth.
Kal-El stretched out beside him, waited for him to catch his breath, then kissed him. Alexander could taste his own seed in Kal-El's mouth. He moaned in the back of his throat, kissed back hungrily, as if he could never get enough.
"No one's ever touched you before," Kal-El said softly.
Alexander shook his head, embarrassed by his own inexperience.
Kal-El curved a hand around the back of his head. "I'm honored to be the first."
Alexander had no illusions that he was Kal-El's. "Who was your--" he broke off, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks.
Kal-El simply pulled him closer. "There was a neighboring farm. A boy called Petrus. We taught each other pleasure."
Alexander could feel Kal-El's cock straining against his thigh. "Teach me?" he asked.
Kal-El kissed him again, laced their fingers together and showed him how to touch him. It amazed Alexander that he could make Kal-El cry out, push up into his grasp, beg for more. He stroked and explored until Kal-El went silent, his mouth a perfect "o" of pleasure as he came. Now that they were both sated, they settled down for the night, lying in each other's arms, and for once, Alexander had no thoughts of Rome as he fell asleep.
As the days passed, Alexander thought less and less about his old life. Even his ambition faded into the back of his mind as he whiled away his time swimming, sunning, making love with Kal-El, getting to know him.
Kal-El was true to his word, and their erotic lessons occupied much of their day. Alexander had never been a more eager student, never applied himself with greater dedication. He'd always had the idea that sex was base, given the example of his father and brother, with their lewd appetites and their cheap whores and their unnatural inclination for one another. But when Kal-El penetrated him, when he was inside Kal-El, he realized that sex could be something else entirely. It could be connection. Enlightenment. Love.
In the hot hours they rested indoors, naked and sprawled on the bed in Kal-El's room, too lazy for the moment to make love, but content with the knowledge that they would soon be hungry for one another again. Alexander lay with his head against Kal-El's shoulder. Kal-El's hands moved idly over his back. He had a thoughtful expression on his face.
"What?" Alexander asked him.
"I was just wondering how long this will last."
"Why would it have to end?"
"You were born to rule Rome, remember? You'll feel the need to go back to your people eventually."
Alexander thought of how the crowd had jeered as he'd been led away from the augury, the throngs that had gathered to hurl stones as the cart passed, taking him away to his death. He told Kal-El the story. "So you see, my people-- don't want me. They never have." It was a hard thing to admit, and it left his throat tight and aching.
Kal-El pulled him closer. "Then your people are not as wise as I would have imagined."
Alexander kissed him, and the heat of the day soon gave way to a different kind of swelter. He pushed Kal-El onto his back and leaned over him, rubbing, body against body, very lightly.
Kal-El moaned. "Don't tease."
Alexander laughed. "But you love it." He whispered kisses along Kal-El's neck, over his chest, down his belly. Kal-El made a sound that was half desperation, half ecstasy, and spread his legs to bring their bodies closer.
What could Alexander possibly need with Rome when he had paradise?
The moment, however, was too soon interrupted as a loud noise echoed through the compound.
Alexander pulled back. "What's that?"
"The alarm. Someone's in the grotto." He eased Alexander off him, hurriedly got up and dressed. Alexander pulled on his own robe, and they took off for the caves.
"I want you to stay back until I see if there's any danger," Kal-El instructed.
"I can't be hurt. And you can. So, please."
Alexander hesitated. But what Kal-El asked was sensible, and he finally nodded. They entered the cave. Kal-El motioned Alexander to a recess in the craggy wall where he could hide, and then he headed toward the front entrance to see what the commotion was. Alexander listened intently.
"What are you doing here?" he heard Kal-El say.
"I have come for the young prince. You will surrender him to me at once. Or you will pay the price for your insolence and disloyalty."
Alexander recognized the voice and hurried toward them. Kal-El was glaring, his eyes glowing red, ready to strike. "No!" Alexander put his hand on Kal-El's arm. "He's a friend." He stepped forward. "Gaius." And embraced him.
"Alexander." Gaius' voice quavered. He hadn't called Alexander by his first name since he was a boy, insisting it wasn't the proper way to address the future emperor of Rome. "I hoped to find you alive, but I--"
"It is good to see you, too," Alexander told him. "I was very worried for your safety."
"I managed to flee to the south, my lord, where my wife has relatives. They were able to hide me. It seems I got away just before the Imperial Guard descended on my house."
"And your family?"
"All safe, my lord."
"I'm so glad to hear that."
"And I take it that--" Gaius glanced over at Kal-El. "You have been well, my lord?"
"Oh, yes. Yes. Thanks to Kal-El." He turned to the boy. "This is my chief advisor. Gaius Agrippa Sullivanus." He turned to Gaius. "This is Kal-El. He came to my rescue."
"I'm sorry about that before," Kal-El said. "I thought you had come to hurt Alexander."
Gaius bowed graciously. "Anyone trying to protect my young prince is someone I would be honored to call a friend."
Kal-El smiled fondly at Alexander. "It seems we have a great deal in common then, Gaius." He nodded toward the interior of the cave. "Come. I'm sure you've had a long journey. You can rest and have something to eat."
He headed back toward the sanctuary. Alexander put his hand on Gaius' arm and guided him. When Gaius got his first view of the complex, his eyes went wide with amazement.
"My lord," he said, in awe.
Alexander smiled. "Yes, it is quite a place, isn't it?"
Gaius made no answer. He only stared.
"Come." Kal-El beckoned them to the building where they ate their meals.
"This young Kal-El is more than he seems at first glance, is he not, my lord?" Gaius whispered.
Alexander smiled broadly and clapped Gaius on the back. "Oh, much more, my friend. Much, much more."
Kal-El served Gaius some food and wine, and Alexander waited until after he'd had a chance to eat before plying him with questions. "So tell me what news you bring?"
Gaius' expression turned grave. "I'm afraid it's not good, my lord. Your father--" He looked down at the table. "He was found dead in his bed by his servants two weeks ago. The palace physicians said that his heart gave out but--"
"Lucius. Poisoned him."
"That is what most people believe."
"And how does my brother get on as the new emperor?"
"Much as you would expect, my lord. The drought drags on. The people are quite desperate, but Lucius does nothing about it. And no one dares speak against him. Your father dealt with his enemies circumspectly. Lucius spreads terror openly in the streets. At times, he seems quite mad."
Alexander's jaw tightened. "Not mad, Gaius. Just vicious."
Gaius shifted in his seat. "The people need someone they can rally around, my lord."
Alexander looked away. "I'm not the best man for that job."
"With all due respect, my lord, you're the only one. You are the elder son, the legitimate heir. Your claim to the throne takes precedence over Lucius'. No one else can say that."
"My father sent me away to die, Gaius. I hardly think that will win anyone's confidence."
"You and I know that. What the people believe is that your father sent you to the Gods. It could work in our favor."
"Are you suggesting--"
"I know your feelings about religion."
"It's not religion, Gaius. It's superstition. I know that now more than ever after--" He stopped. While he'd gladly trust Gaius with his very life, Kal-El's secrets were not his to tell. "Superstition is the enemy of fact, of learning, of everything I believe in and stand for."
"Perhaps, my lord. But superstition may also be a valuable tool to a man who knows how to use it to achieve his own ends." He met Alexander's eye, his expression very serious. "Your people need you, my lord."
"They don't want me, Gaius. You've seen that for yourself."
"They don't know you. Not really. Give them the chance, Alexander."
Alexander squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. He didn't want to go back to Rome. The sole desire of his heart was to spend the rest of his life here, where it was beautiful and peaceful, with Kal-El, the only person he'd ever loved. But he knew what his brother was capable of, and he'd been trained his entire life to believe that preserving the empire was his responsibility. Rome may have turned its back on him, but he could never turn his back on Rome.
He glanced over at Kal-El, whose face was inexpressibly sad. "I'm sorry," Alexander said softly.
Kal-El hung his head.
Gaius cleared his throat. "Perhaps I should leave the two of you to discuss this in private. There's a place where I can rest?"
"Yes. Just up the stairs," Kal-El said. "Any of the bedrooms along that hall."
Gaius inclined his head in thanks.
Alexander waited for him to leave the room and then took Kal-El's hand. "It's not what I want. But I can't just abandon them."
"They spat at you." Kal-El's eyes flashed angrily. "They--"
"And still you're willing to sacrifice what we have for them?"
"You don't know my brother." He tightened his hold on Kal-El's hand. "Come with me. I won't ever ask you to use your abilities for me. I promise. All I want is for you to be by my side, to be my love."
Kal-El lifted Alexander's hand to his mouth and pressed a tender kiss to it. "I wish--" He shook his head. "But I'm not one of you, Alexander. I don't belong in your world. It's not the life for me. I'm sorry." He stood, his eyes bright. "I just need to--" He waved his hand. "I'll be back to say goodbye."
And then he was gone, in a blink, before Alexander could frame his next words. He sighed. He knew it would be useless to go after him. He could not catch him, and besides, Kal-El wanted to be alone. Alexander would respect his wishes.
He drifted out into the garden, walked a circuit from the pool to the building that housed the memory room, along paths he and Kal-El had wandered together, to places where they'd laughed, talked of their dreams, made love, made promises. He touched the trees and the cool marble of the colonnaded walkway, saying goodbye to everything.
When he returned, the shadows on the grass were longer, and Gaius was waiting for him, rested and ready to go.
"There is a farm where we can stay the night on our way back to Rome, but we should set out now if we wish to make it there before it grows too dark."
Alexander nodded. "I just need to look for--"
Suddenly Kal-El was standing before him. He took a step toward Alexander, cupped the back of his head in his palm, almost like a benediction. "Go and be the great man you were always meant to be," he said solemnly. He pulled Alexander into his arms. "And never forget how much I love you."
Alexander returned the embrace, fiercely. "I love you too." His voice was choked, his throat tight. He pulled back just enough to touch Kal-El's face and then kissed him one last time.
"Goodbye, Kal-El," he said.
And turned away from happiness in pursuit of destiny.
The first part of their journey back to the city passed in silence. The road to Rome had never seemed so dusty and forlorn to Alexander. He kept his eyes on the ground and focused on each step. It taxed all his resolve to keep from turning around and running back to Kal-El.
Alexander could feel Gaius' gaze on him. No doubt he was concerned by what he'd witnessed in the sanctuary. It was common enough for Roman men of Alexander's class to take male lovers, but they were usually slaves or prostitutes and always submissive. Kal-El clearly was not, and Gaius must guess the liberties Alexander had allowed him to take.
Finally, he could stand his mentor's wordless scrutiny no more. "You can say it. I give you permission."
To his surprise, Gaius put a hand on his shoulder. "Your mother would be very proud of you."
Alexander glanced at him, startled. "What?"
"It takes great strength of character to sacrifice love in order to do one's duty, especially to serve people who have rejected you. Your mother was such a person. She would be proud to see that her son takes after her."
Alexander stared, a revelation forming in his mind. "You loved her," he said at last, surprised in some ways, not in others.
"Yes," Gaius admitted. "But her role was to marry your father and become empress of Rome. She took that very seriously. And I honored her for it. As I now honor you."
"I wish I were your son," he said quietly. It was something he had often thought, but could actually say now that his own father was gone.
"In my heart, you have always been a son to me, Alexander," Gaius said, fondly.
Alexander took a deep breath. "Do you think we'll be able to marshal much support?"
"These things are always difficult to predict. Lucius is feared, but he is also despised. I believe the people will be glad for another choice, but there is no guarantee."
"What about the army? Will they break ranks with him?"
"It's not a matter of loyalty. Their aim is simply to stand with the winner. If the tide of popular opinion starts to turn, they'll turn with it."
"So how do we make that happen?"
"I know it's going to be dangerous," Alexander assured him. "And I also realize we may not be successful. I'm willing to take the risk if you are."
Gaius nodded. "Then the first order of business should be for you to address the people. We have a small band of followers already. Hopefully, they can provide some protection, and we'll use the element of surprise. Appear unpredictably. Make a quick speech. And get out fast, before Lucius' troops can respond. I've arranged for places to stay. We'll move around as much as possible. Try to keep you safe. But there's always the chance--"
Alexander nodded grimly. "I understand. All we can do is our best."
Gaius clasped his shoulder. "Let us go and save Rome."
In the morning, Alexander and Gaius thanked the farm couple who had given them shelter for the night and continued on their way. By late afternoon, they arrived at the city gates. Gaius led the way to a house along a quiet residential street in a middle-class neighborhood.
"This woman lost her only son in one of Lucius' purges. The boy was charged with treason after he was caught complaining about the drought in public, even though he was only twelve years old."
Alexander's jaw tightened with anger. "What kind of man finds his enemies among children?"
They arrived at the house. Gaius glanced up and down the street to make sure they had not been followed and then knocked. An older woman with graying hair answered the door and let them inside.
She sank down onto her knees before Alexander. "We are not worthy to receive you, your majesty. But you are most welcome, my lord. Most welcome, indeed."
Alexander gently helped the woman to her feet. She was thin and pale and looked as if she had recently been ill, no doubt brought on by her grief. "We are very grateful for your help, madam."
"It is an honor to serve you, my lord. You must be hungry after your journey. Let me see you into the dining room and bring you some dinner."
Alexander bowed his head. He and Gaius followed her into an adjoining room and took places around the table. She served them a hearty meal, no doubt the best of everything she had, and they discussed their plans for the following day.
"The first speech is the most important one," Gaius advised him. "You will either reach the people's hearts and minds, or you'll fail to earn their trust."
Alexander nodded. "Do you think we'll encounter any resistance?"
"We should be prepared for it, even though I think with the element of surprise on our side we should be safe. Obviously, each time you go out into public the risk will increase."
"Yes," Alexander agreed. "But we will have to continue until we've convinced enough people to stand with us. And then we can move against Lucius."
After they finished their meal, their hostess showed them to their chamber for the night. "I hope you will be comfortable," she said.
Alexander bowed. "You are most kind. "
The woman pressed his hand. "May the Gods protect and keep you, my lord," she said, her voice choked with emotion, and then she left them to rest.
In the morning, they rose early, ate a quick breakfast, thanked the woman again, and headed out for Alexander's first public appearance since the augury.
Gaius had chosen the place carefully. Alexander would speak from the Temple of Fortune, the significance obvious since he would be asking the people to place their future prosperity in his hands. It was one of the older temples, not in the main forum. There would still be a sizeable crowd, but it was less likely any of Lucius' Imperial Guard would be in the area.
Alexander was wrapped in a cloak, its hood pulled up over his head to disguise him, and they tried to blend in to the throngs as they headed to the square. There was evidence everywhere of how the people suffered from the drought. Public wells that once bustled with slaves fetching water were dusty and abandoned now. Thin, sickly children straggled through the streets, searching for food. There was a feeling of hopelessness in the air, deadness in the eyes of the people they passed that made Alexander all the more determined to succeed.
When they arrived in the square, Gaius discreetly pointed out their followers, strategically positioned around the temple. They were all armed, and if anything went wrong, they would do their best to see that Alexander got away safely.
"Are you ready?" Gaius asked.
He nodded, took a deep breath and pulled off his cloak. There were loud gasps as he ascended the broad steps of the temple. He turned and raised his hands to get the crowd's attention.
"People of Rome, listen to what I have come to tell you," he said, projecting his voice with great oratorical skill.
Passersby stopped to watch him, and murmurs of curiosity ran through the crowd.
"You all know that I am not like other men. When I was only a boy, I was marked, set apart. For what, I did not know, until the day of the augury. On that day, I was chosen by the Gods. Not for sacrifice as the priest Aulus mistakenly believed. But to serve the Gods, to become their instrument. In the months that I have been gone, I have been on the most unbelievable journey." He thought of Kal-El, and his voice swelled. "I have seen the most amazing things. And I have come back to you, my people, the citizens of Rome. To lead you out of the darkness and into the light."
Cries of "here, here!" and "save us, my lord!" rang out in the square. The people pressed forward, listening intently, their eyes fastened on him, their expressions rapt.
"But your destiny is something you must choose. I cannot serve you unless you first serve yourselves. You must decide. Who will you follow? Who will you trust? Put your faith in me, and I pledge to create a better life and a brighter future for all Romans."
The crowd erupted in wild applause. Gaius signalled Alexander that it was time to go, and he waved to the crowd as he descended the stairs. As he departed, the air rang with the sound of his name, the people proclaiming him their choice, something he had never actually expected to hear.
"That was well done, my lord," Gaius said, as he hurried Alexander along a side street. "Tomorrow, we must strive to be just as successful."
Alexander nodded. Gaius led him along a zigzagging path across the city, keeping to alleys and empty streets, trying to make sure no one followed them. Finally, they arrived at a granary. The miller lived in a small hut in the back, and they were received with the same warm welcome as they had been the night before.
Over the next few days, Alexander made many more impromptu speeches. Gaius used his network of sympathizers to spread false word of their next destination, and they had succeeded in avoiding any confrontation with Lucius' forces. By the end of the week, there was unrest in the streets, even outright rebellion in some districts that had been particularly hard hit by the drought.
"Perhaps it is not such a good idea to go out again today," Gaius said that morning over breakfast. "Lucius will certainly be concerned about the threat to his power. He'll be all the more determined to find you."
"But if we don't keep applying pressure while the momentum is on our side, we may lose a valuable opportunity."
"True." Gaius appeared worried. "But if you're captured or killed--"
"We'll just have to be careful." Alexander looked him in the eye. "If I'm truly worthy of being emperor, then I can't back down just because it's become dangerous."
"I suppose you won't be dissuaded?"
Alexander smiled. "You know me too well."
Gaius sighed. "Then let's go and win some more supporters to our cause."
They had chosen yet another location for today's appearance, and everything started out well enough. Alexander made his remarks, the crowd cheered, and he was just about to take his leave when a contingent of Imperial Guard appeared out of nowhere. Alexander's defenders drew their weapons, and the two sides clashed violently.
Gaius grabbed Alexander by the sleeve. "Come on! This way!"
He forced his way through the panicked crowd, dragging Alexander behind him. There was an open avenue at the far end of the plaza, and if they could just make it that far, they would be able to lose their pursuers in the maze of side streets and alleyways that opened off it.
They finally pushed their way free of the stampeding throngs and were just turning the corner onto the avenue when a white-hot pain jolted Alexander, and he fell to the ground. An arrow protruded from his side. Blood soaked his robe, and he had to labor to breathe.
"Alexander!" Gaius started to run back for him.
But Lucius' guards were almost on him, and if they were both caught, it was all over. "No!" he cried out. "Kal-El. Tell him I need him." He did not think the arrow wound was enough to kill him, and Lucius would want to make a spectacle of his death. So perhaps there would still be time for Kal-El to help him. If not, at least Gaius would be safe.
Gaius hesitated, obviously not wanting to leave him.
"Go!" Alexander screamed.
There was great sorrow in Gaius' face, but he finally did as he was ordered. He turned and ran, just managing to escape before the Imperial Guard closed in. The soldiers snatched Alexander up, and he cried out in pain.
"Look what we have here," one of the guards said. The others laughed. "His majesty the emperor will be very pleased indeed."
"Lucius is not your emperor. He is the bastard child of a serving girl. He murdered his own father in cold blood to try to take what could never rightfully belong to him. If you have any sense at all, you'll choose to stand with your true emperor. Before it's too late."
"A fine speech," the guard said, mockingly. "But orders are orders."
He drew his sword, and Alexander thought, with a sick lurch in his stomach, that perhaps he'd been wrong. Perhaps Lucius preferred expediency to morbid theatrics, after all.
But the guard raised the hilt, not the blade. "I'll pass along to his majesty all the kind words you had to say about him. I'm sure it will be of great interest to him," he said and brought the sword down hard on Alexander's head.
When Alexander regained consciousness, it was because someone had thrown water in his face. He opened his eyes and shook his head and coughed.
"Finally." Lucius stood before him, glowering.
They were in some sort of building, below ground apparently, because it was very dark. Alexander was tied to a pillar in an open area. The arrow had been removed from his side, but his wound throbbed painfully. He could just make out what looked like cells toward the rear of the room, so perhaps this was a prison. It was too shadowy to see if there were any other prisoners.
Lucius circled around him. "You've kept me waiting, brother. You know how I dislike that."
"So sorry to have inconvenienced you," he said, sarcastically. Perhaps he should have been frightened, but Lucius had always brought out his disdain.
"Yes, you have been very inconvenient, indeed." He ran a hand down Alexander's arm, making him want to shrink away, but the ropes held him tight. "Do you know what they're whispering in the streets? That you're the chosen one of the Gods. Maybe that you are even part God yourself." Lucius laughed. "That's very clever of you, brother."
He ran his hand over Alexander's chest, lingeringly, and Alexander had to grit his teeth to endure the intrusive touch.
Lucius pressed closer, spoke softly in Alexander's ear. "You have always had a rather unusual gift for healing. Still--" He pulled back, his face hardened. "We both know you're mortal, don't we, brother?" He jabbed his finger hard into Alexander's wound, and Alexander screamed.
Lucius took a step back, his face filled with smug triumph. "I have to give you credit though. It is a wonderfully underhanded scheme of yours, using the people's silly superstitions to get them to do your bidding. It's a trick worthy of our father."
Alexander felt the hot rush of fury. "How dare you speak of him? I know what you did, Lucius. Don't even try denying it."
"Why would I? I'm really quite proud of myself. How I was able to slip the potion into his glass. How I lay with him in bed, waiting for it to take effect. The way his eyes went wide, his face pale, so astonished that I'd betray him." Lucius laughed. "He liked having me near him, you know. The man who never trusted anyone trusted me. Can you imagine?"
Alexander curled his lip in disgust. "Even you can't be so devoid of all decent feeling as to talk about killing your own father with such sickening glee."
"Why so sentimental, brother? He was more than happy to send you off to Hades when it suited him."
"Something that amused you greatly, I seem to recall."
Lucius smiled broadly. "You should have seen the look on your face. The shock. It was priceless. Lionelus looked much the same when he couldn't draw his next breath."
Alexander stared at the monster he called brother. "He was your father, Lucius."
Lucius shrugged. "So? He never loved me. It was always you. Even after you were gone I'd see it in his eyes. That he still wanted you. I got tired of waiting for him to realize which one of us was really like him." He smiled slyly. "So I showed him."
"What do you want, Lucius?"
Lucius stroked Alexander's cheek. "I want you to go away. Forever. So I can have what's rightfully mine." His grip tightened on Alexander's jaw. "But you've made it complicated for me, haven't you, brother? I can't just run you through with my sword the way I'd like to and be done with it. Not without the risk of turning you into a martyr."
Alexander regarded him coolly. "I guess you're stuck with me then."
Lucius smiled, his eyes glinting crazily. "Oh, no, brother. You see, you're not the only who can play this game. Tomorrow, we battle in the ring. A contest ordained by the Gods. That's what I'll tell the masses. Whoever wins is favored by the Gods to rule Rome." He tilted his head. "But then, you never were much of a swordsman, were you? And with that wound--" He shrugged. "That's really too bad for you, isn't it?"
He threw his head back and laughed, and Alexander had to wonder if perhaps Gaius had been right, after all. Maybe Lucius was insane.
"Guards!" Lucius called out, and four burly men stepped forward. "Lock him in a cell. Make sure he's still breathing tomorrow. I want him alive and well, so I can dispatch him with all Rome watching." He smiled at Alexander. "Enjoy your last night among the living, brother."
He swept away, and the guards untied Alexander, hustled him into a cell, and locked it behind him. His prison was a disgusting hole, with a hard-packed dirt floor that stank of urine, nothing to sit on but a pile of filthy straw. But his wound ached, and he was a little light-headed from blood loss. He sank down onto the ground and tried to find a position that was comfortable.
Perhaps, it would have been better if Lucius had killed him now. Alexander had no chance against him. Lucius was the athlete in the family. Alexander had always been more interested in scholarly pursuits than the martial arts. His feeble attempts to learn swordsmanship had ended in ignominy the day his master had nicked him and given him the scar on his lip. Lucius would not just beat him in the ring. He'd humiliate him. Alexander sighed and held his head in his hands.
"You think you can't win, because he has the greater strength and skill. But you're wrong about that."
Alexander looked up, startled. He had thought he was alone. But now that his eyes had adjusted somewhat to the darkness, he could see that there was someone in the cell opposite his. It was the gladiator Flavius that he'd seen fight the last time he'd gone to the Colosseum.
Alexander got up and stood by the bars. "You think?"
Flavius smiled. "I know. Fighting is above all things a mental discipline. The most valuable weapon is strategy, understanding your opponent's weakness and being able to capitalize on it. Your brother is rash, undisciplined, and that can be his undoing, if you have the right plan. That's where I can help you."
"Why would you want to?"
"I know who spared my life the last time I appeared in the ring, my lord. An honorable man always finds a way to pay his debts. Besides--" He smiled. "It's only sporting to even the odds a little."
"Then please. I could use all the help I can get."
"Listen carefully, my lord. This is what you need to do."
Flavius gave Alexander instruction long into the night. At last, he settled down to rest and did manage to get some sleep. In the morning, the guards came by with plates of slop meant to pass for food. Alexander set his down, eyeing it suspiciously. With Lucius, there was no guarantee it wasn't poisoned.
Alexander adjusted the bandage over his wound. It was dirty and needed changing, but there was no help for that. His side burned and throbbed, but at least, he was finding it easier to breathe.
At last, the guards came for him and dragged him and Flavius from their cells.
"They'll get quite a show at the games today," one of the guards said. "First, the death of a prince. And then the death of a legend."
The other guards laughed.
Alexander and Flavius were hustled across the room, down a long hall, up some stairs and outside. Alexander had to lift his arm to shield his eyes, the daylight practically blinding him. They were loaded onto the back of a cart, surrounded by guards with their swords drawn. The driver set off, and the cart wound its way through the Roman streets.
At the Colosseum, they were taken from the cart and led inside, down through the bowels of the complex, to the door that led to the arena. Flavius was pulled off to one side and locked in a holding cell there.
"Good luck, my lord," he said, solemnly.
Alexander nodded. "Thank you. For everything."
A guard stood on each side of Alexander, keeping a tight grip on his arms, and dragged into the ring.
The crowd gasped when it saw him. Lucius rose in the imperial box to address them.
"Citizens of Rome. There is much whispering these days in the streets. Much false information that is being spread. And it is all because of this man." He pointed at Alexander. "He claims to be chosen by the Gods to rule Rome. I am here to tell you that such a claim is blasphemy. "
Murmurs ran through the audience, but it was impossible to tell what they signified, who the people supported.
"To prove what I say is true, I propose a challenge," Lucius continued. "My opponent and I will meet in the ring, man to man, sword to sword. And let the Gods choose who is the rightful ruler. The last man standing is ordained by their holy authority to be your emperor."
The people in the stands cheered deafeningly. They enjoyed a good fight anytime, but one with such high stakes, invoking the names of their Gods and Goddesses, was a spectacle they would not likely see again in their lifetimes. Lucius came down from the box and strode into the ring, carrying two swords. He threw one to Alexander and raised his own, in preparation for the battle.
"Let us put on a good show before I send you off to Hades, brother."
"You're rather confident, aren't you?" Alexander said, raising his sword as well.
Lucius smiled. "You forget. I have seen you fight before." Then his face went deadly serious, his eyes cold, as he cried out, "On your guard!"
Alexander managed to fend off the first blow, but he had grown no more skilled in fighting since the last time he'd picked up a sword. He battled awkwardly, his wound making him even more clumsy.
"I could kill you right now," Lucius said, mockingly. "But I wouldn't want to cheat the audience out of a proper day's entertainment."
Alexander made no answer. Flavius had schooled him to keep his concentration, to pay no mind to anything Lucius might say. He was supposed to drag out the fight as long as he could, let Lucius get overconfident, sloppy, and then look for his opportunity. He had no real idea what that might be. He could only hope he'd recognize it when he saw it.
Their battle ranged all over the ring, Lucius advancing and Alexander falling back, sweat pouring down his back as he struggled to keep Lucius' blade at bay.
"Are you tiring, brother? Are you ready for me to end it?" Lucius laughed, his features twisting with maniacal glee. "Not just yet, I think. It's too much fun watching you flail." Lucius' face was bright with triumph.
Alexander noticed that Lucius let his sword arm fall when he got caught up in making insults. It would leave him vulnerable to losing his weapon if a blow was properly landed. Alexander sagged a little, panted loudly, bluffing, trying to get Lucius to let his guard down a little more. And it worked, much to his surprise. Lucius paused a moment to laugh, to enjoy the joke at Alexander's expense. Alexander executed the move Flavius had taught him, sweeping Lucius legs out from under him, throwing him to the ground, at the same time he brought the hilt of his own sword up hard against Lucius' sword, sending it flying several feet away.
Lucius started to scramble after it, but Alexander pressed the tip of his blade into his chest. "I think this battle is over, brother."
"You think you've won?" Lucius sneered. "You've won nothing. Guards!"
Five members of the Imperial Guard stormed into the ring, swords drawn and advanced on Alexander. Lucius looked up at him from the ground and laughed. "Did you really think you could trust me to honor our bargain, brother?"
Alexander fell back, his sword raised, but he had no hope against five experienced soldiers. He'd have no chance against even one of them. But then, there was a commotion behind him, and the crowd started to cheer. Flavius had somehow broken free. He raced to Alexander's side and picked up Lucius' fallen sword.
Alexander stared at him in amazement. Flavius grinned. "It's only sporting, my lord."
The Imperial Guard set on them. Flavius took the point, keeping Alexander to his side and a little behind him, and battled valiantly. Even Alexander managed to hold his own. But Flavius' great skill was no match for such unequal numbers, and eventually, the two of them were forced back against the arena wall, trapped. The soldiers circled around, closing in for the kill.
"We die well, my lord," Flavius said. "That is all a man can ever ask in this life."
The soldiers raised their swords, the sun glinting off the metal. Alexander closed his eyes and waited for the end. But it didn't come. Instead, there was a sudden breeze. The crowd gasped. Alexander opened his eyes, and Kal-El was standing in front of them, shielding them with his body. He was wearing a costume unlike anything Alexander had ever seen before, a bright blue suit with some kind of insignia emblazoned on it, knee-length boots, a flowing red cape. He looked more otherworldly than ever.
The soldiers gaped in disbelief, but they did not flee, no doubt fearing Lucius' retribution more than this odd-looking stranger who'd appeared out of nowhere. Little did they realize. They raised their swords and attacked. Kal-El stood calmly as they shattered their blades against his impervious flesh. The guards' eyes went wide with terror, and Kal-El flung them halfway across the ring with a single swipe of his powerful arm.
He turned to Alexander. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." He drank in the sight of Kal-El's beloved face. He had not expected to ever see him again.
Kal-El nodded and then walked toward the center of the ring.
"A friend of yours?" Flavius whispered.
Alexander smiled. "You could say that."
Kal-El planted his feet with authority and looked up into the stands. Complete silence fell over the arena.
"If you wonder whether Alexander is truly favored of the Gods, then let me offer you this gift as proof."
He rose into the air, and the audience cried out in amazement. He shot straight up into the sky, toward the stubborn clouds that had refused to release their precious moisture for so long. There was a loud crack. The clouds darkened, and everyone stared up in wonder as rain began to fall softly.
Kal-El returned and landed at Alexander's side.
"Favored of the Gods?" Alexander asked him, with a soft smile.
"Superstition can be useful to a man who knows how to use it for his own purposes."
"Gaius reached you then?"
"Yes. He is safe and well and waiting for his new emperor back at the royal palace. Shall we go?"
"Yes. Just--" He turned to Flavius. "You have earned the undying gratitude of your emperor. Name your reward."
Flavius bowed deeply. "It is an honor to serve you, my lord." His eyes twinkled. "But I wouldn't say no to a nice little farm up north. And perhaps citizenship in your majesty's great empire?"
Alexander smiled. "Done."
Kal-El wrapped an arm around Alexander's waist.
Flavius waved as they started to ascend. "I'll take care of the last piece of business here, my lord."
He lifted his sword and started toward Lucius, who was cowering along the side of the arena. All the exits were blocked by the Imperial Guard who had, just as Gaius predicted, turned with the tide. People started to climb down from the stands. They picked up stones and broke off pieces of the wooden seats and advanced on Lucius in a mob.
Alexander pressed his face against Kal-El's neck as they flew away. There was probably justice in what was about to happen, brutal though it may be, but he still did not want to see it. Kal-El stroked his back to comfort him. A few moments later, they landed on the balcony of the palace.
It seemed like a very long time to Alexander since he had been here, and he felt an ache in his chest. A great deal had happened since he'd left that morning for the augury.
Kal-El watched him, his expression concerned, and Alexander wrapped his arms around his waist and held on as if his life depended on it.
"It's all right." Kal-El hugged him tightly, rubbed his back in comforting circles. "You're home now."
Alexander pressed his face against Kal-El's neck. "Mmm. Feels so good." The palace was just a building, after all. Home was Kal-El.
Kal-El gently pulled back, lifted Alexander's chin and kissed him deeply. Alexander dug his fingers into the odd fabric of the suit and kissed back passionately. He finally had to stop to draw a breath and ran his hands over Kal-El's chest.
"What is this?" he asked, tracing his finger over the emblem.
"My family's crest. This is the traditional dress back on my world."
Alexander smiled. "It suits you well." He pressed a kiss over the symbol, honoring the people who had sent Kal-El to him.
Kal-El cupped the back of Alexander's head tenderly in his palm. "I would like to keep you to myself forever, but there are people waiting for you inside."
Alexander sighed. "I suppose we can't keep the world from intruding."
Kal-El stroked his cheek. "Not by the bright glare of day when Rome needs her emperor." He leaned in and whispered huskily against Alexander's ear, "But tonight when we are alone in your bed it will be quite a different matter."
Alexander groaned and pressed himself against Kal-El's body. The sun could not go down fast enough to suit him. Kal-El kissed him again and then stepped back.
"Gaius will not be pleased if I keep you any longer." He ushered Alexander inside.
In the main hall, Gaius was waiting, along with the entire palace staff. When Alexander entered the room, everyone fell to their knees.
"Long live Emperor Alexander!" they cried.
Kal-El conducted him to the throne. Alexander took his rightful place, and Kal-El stood just behind him, a silent message to anyone who might still be loyal to Lucius. If they wanted to get to Alexander, they would have to go through him.
Gaius approached. He bowed respectfully, and Alexander motioned for him to stand.
"My lord, would you care to address your people?" he asked.
Alexander nodded. "Yes, Gaius. Thank you. I would."
He rose to his feet. "Some leaders choose to rule through fear. My father and brother were such men. I prefer to earn your respect. Today is a new day in Rome. We stand ready to enter a new age of prosperity and enlightenment that will extend to all inhabitants of this mighty empire. Some say it is the duty of the people to serve their emperor. But I tell you it is the duty of your emperor to serve you, to promote your interests, and that is what I will do, to the best of my abilities, for as long as the Gods see fit to grant me life."
The crowd clapped and cheered. Gaius smiled proudly.
Alexander inclined his head in acknowledgement of their support. Gaius gave the sign, and the people began to file out.
When it was only the three of them, Gaius embraced Alexander. "It is very good to see you, my lord."
Alexander smiled. "And you too, old friend."
"I have heard from the frenzy of gossip running through the palace that you defeated Lucius in the ring." He raised an eyebrow. Gaius, more than anyone, knew the deficiencies of Alexander's fighting skills.
"I had some very valuable advice from an expert."
Gaius looked intrigued, but he didn't ask for further details. "You'll need some time to settle in, no doubt, and then we should start to discuss your plans."
"Indeed. I have several efforts in mind already. Not only the campaign to expand the water supply, but a building program to help improve the outlying regions of the empire."
"A very worthy goal, my lord."
Outside, the chant of Alexander's name was starting to swell in the air, as citizens converged on the palace to acclaim their new leader.
"You need to appear before them," Gaius advised.
"Yes. Soon." Alexander's eyes were fastened on Kal-El. "I just need to take care of something first."
Gaius cleared his throat. "Yes. Yes, of course, my lord. I'll take my leave." He bowed and left Alexander with Kal-El.
He took Kal-El's hand. "I know you said this wasn't the life for you but-- Stay. Please. In whatever role. However you feel comfortable. Just don't--"
Kal-El stroked his cheek. "Are you sure you really want me? Now that all Rome is at your feet?"
"Oh, yes," Alexander said, with certainty. He took Kal-El's mouth in a ferocious kiss. "I'll always want you."
"Then you'll always have me." Kal-El pulled him close and held him tight.
The noise of the crowd grew insistent, the people demanding their emperor.
"You should go," Kal-El said.
"Come with me?"
He shook his head. "I prefer my taste of greatness from the behind the scenes." He kissed Alexander sweetly. "Besides, this is for you. You're the one they want. Go on. I'll be here when you get back."
Alexander nodded and walked out onto the balcony. The noise was so deafening he could actually feel the floor vibrating beneath his feet. He went to the railing and raised his hand, and the crowd's roar grew even louder. He had wanted this, had been waiting for it his entire life, the moment when his people would truly embrace him, when his destiny would stretch out before him as grandly as the lands of his mighty empire. He smiled and waved, and it was everything he had ever imagined. But if he lost it tomorrow, it would not matter.
Because all he would ever really need was waiting for him inside,
and there was no force on earth that could ever take that away