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Io Saturnalia

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A blast of air rattles the shutters in the study of Tullus Aufidius. He pulls his cloak tighter around himself. It has been a cold winter. They are all cold lately, it seems to him. Cold seeps into old bones; now that he has passed on the rites of war and bloodshed to younger men, that exercise cannot warm him. It is time to write his memoirs, then lay down and die.

Volscian towns are all Roman now, or will be soon, by conquest, by treaty, by acclamation. Tullus is one of few who might still call himself Volscian, and not be mocked. His children straddle two worlds. His grandchildren will disdain their lineage. His great-grandchildren will forget it--better to be Roman upstarts than Volscian nobles.

“What would you think of these days, Martius?” he asks.

An attentive servant appears by his side. “What was that, master?” asks the young man. Or no--he was young once, when Tullus was already old, and now Tullus is older still, and this servant follows him to that barren land.

“Nothing, Aulus. I am an old man. I talk to ghosts.”

“Very well,” says Aulus, withdrawing.

Martius would have found a way to die before enduring this: skin gone papery, a member that no longer rises, a mind that runs too much to dream and memory. Martius would live and die a god, and leave mortals to mourn and worship. Tullus looks down at the words he has already written.

I knew a man once, a great man, who embodied all that is noble in a man, and I slayed him. I heard the ballad of a German barbarian, from an explorer who came over the mountains to the fair cities of Italy. In it, a king mourns the death of his hated enemy, the only man worthy of fighting.

I knew a man. A great man, yet he yielded to me in every way a man can yield, and still he is accorded great. And so he should be…

Here Tullus put down his pen many nights previous. He can set nothing more in words. Martius had few enough words when he lived. Now, long since dust, no words can capture him, draw him for future generations to build in their minds and admire. Even now, Tullus cannot help but mix his love with his hate, longing with his bitter gall.

The Romans do not remember him with honor. Traitor, who led an army against his own people. His betrayer, Attius Tullus Aufidius, they pretend not to remember at all.

There was a time when, if a sweet memory occurred, Tullus washed it away with the memory of Martius’s lifeblood stinging his lips, the hot spray of it. That was the only Martius he wished to remember. Now he lingers in other memories: Martius, dressed in rags, head bowed, so Tullus first thought him only the ruin of a great man, not a great man’s self.

Io Saturnalia rang in the air that night. His people have the same gods as the Romans. Perhaps that is what makes it easy to bow to them. Their shared gods prefer the Romans, time and battles have revealed.

Humility, an ill fitting cloak, bowed down the shoulders of the great Caius Martius Coriolanus. Pray, don’t give me that name, he said. Did he know it was more painful for Tullus not to accord him that title? That it was a greater humiliation when he discards it?

Martius drank sparingly at the feast, while men grew insensible with wine around him. Tullus raised toasts liberally to their new ally, and saw a pained smile crease his cheeks, before his face settled back into watchfulness. They spoke little that night.

*

A great ring of men would have gathered to watch them spar had Tullus allowed it. All the Volsces would have come to see this: the great Coriolanus in the power of their champion, Attius Tullus Aufidius. Yet, there were so many ways it could go wrong. He could not abide if even one or two saw. Men will be blinded if they spy upon this; he proclaimed it wide. Caius Martius belonged, once, to the multitude, but then they rejected him, and now he is Tullus’s alone.

The practice ring: staves pounded into mud, sunk deep, a firm wall, the ground filled with sand to give a soft landing. Soft enough for men, anyway--it abrades skin where it finds purchase. Soft enough for the men who fought there now. He had a sore head from his drinking. He could still feel the press of Caius Martius’s lips on his from their greeting the night before.

He would have thought...he would have thought that if that man came to his gates, he would kill him where he stood, paint himself in his blood, but that was not the action, the words that moved in him.

“We need not do this,” said Cauis Martius. He held his chin up. He could not help but display this noble bearing, those tense muscles, the coiled skill and strength below the skin. His practice sword was given him by Tullus, as was everything he wears, from breast-plate to vambraces--Tullus’s clothes embraced those deadly muscles.

“The need is great,” said Tullus. “You have always bested me.”

“Not always,” said Caius Martius. “There was that--”

“Yes, the walls of Satricum. But you were injured.”

“And so you let me go.” Martius grinned. “Tell me, did you regret it?”

“Of course, then. Not now. Strike,” Tullus ordered him.

He did, a feint meant to startle with its suddenness, but Tullus had grown into a man during his years of meeting Martius in battle, and meeting men trained by him. Sudden, bloody, fierce--of surpassing bravery, these were the hallmarks of Martius’s style and his men. It could be fought, with an equal fierceness, a greater cunning.

Tullus struck low--he was shorter than Caius Martius. Coriolanus. He wondered, sometimes, if that was all, an accident of birth. His father chose a mother too small, and his spirit, that would be as great as this Martius, did not have the body to enable it.

He returned a strike, and this one glanced off of Martius’s shoulder, shredding the sleeve along the seam there.

Tullus was used to cheering, the panting of other men at practice, not this empty arena. No one to see but the gods, how Martius worked him back, back, against the rough wooden stockade, then pinned Tullus’s hand against the wood. Tullus dropped his sword and rolled in the sand past Martius, then sprang at him with his dagger, inside Martius’s guard.

They ended on the ground, as Tullus knew they would. Martius smelled as he did the last time they grappled thus, on the bloodied ground of Corioles. Martius put a hand around his neck, that hand slick with blood dripping down it from a small wound that Tullus dealt him earlier on his forearm.

“Shall I choke you, leave you unconscious?” Martius asked. “Then wait here until you revive, I suppose.” Something in him faltered, and the elbow-brace that Tullus pressed against Martius's arm pushed him back, bent Martius's elbow. Tullus sprang free and they grappled again on the dirty sand.

Tullus climbed on top, digging his knees into Martius’s ribs. His waist heaved as he bucked Tullus off, then, quicker than a striking snake, pulled him backward so Martius’s forearm was again crushing his throat, chest flat against Tullus’s back.

“Or shall you yield?” Martius asked, as though the last moments of struggle had not occurred.

As Tullus’s words of welcome grew more heated the night before, he had imagined this moment. He did not press then, for Martius looked tired to death, surfeited by the demands of Tullus’s noble guests. Tullus would not add to that burden, only to his welcome.

“Shall I?” Tullus asked. If he moved, Martius would crush his throat, dislocate his shoulder with his arm held back, yet if he did not move, he might remain here, only tightly pinned. It was hardly uncomfortable. Indeed, he had enough room to back against Martius’s groin armor.

Martius tightened his grip. Tullus stilled.

“You have won, this time,” Tullus answered him. “It will not always be so. Now you are here, you are a whetstone I will sharpen my sword upon.”

“And if my sword needs sharpening?” Martius muttered, letting Tullus up. Tullus smiled to himself.

“Bath. Massage. Tomorrow: I must not keep you all to myself. You train up notable soldiers. Train up mine.”

Martius came to his feet slowly. Blood leaked from his shoulder. Tullus reached for it. Martius whirled back, his hand upon the wound. “Yes, you did this. But not today. It was at--Corioles.”

Tullus could not keep his eyes from it, the mark that he made, an arc of gnarled skin surmounting his shoulder. Martius did not wound him so badly when last they met each other.

“I will send my man to bandage that if it needs it.”

“Yes,” said Martius.

Tullus’s pride would not allow him to watch the bandaging, to see other stretches of skin, marred, he hoped, by his sword. There must be other scars. Instead he soaked away his aches and the last of the wine from the night before.

*

The next day Martius watched the Volscian troops spar, while Tullus walked a half a pace behind, already like a servant. Sometimes he skipped a pace to come even with Martius again, but found himself lagging behind that long-legged stride.

Men’s movements in their practice became sharper and more aggressive when Martius’s eyes fell upon them. Some wariness, too, that disappeared all too soon. Martius watched and waited, and then demonstrated some tricky bit of sword work, grace even in muscles not yet warmed by exercise.

A child approached them with cups of water. Martius took one from his shaking hand, drained it, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. Then he saw the lad’s trembling, and stood at attention.

“Boy, don’t you have a sword? Shouldn’t you be practicing with the others?”

The child stood as straight as Martius, and looked up at him. “I’m too small. My family only has one and it’s my brother’s.”

Martius looked back at Tullus. “Surely someone can spare a sword for this fine boy. He is grown too big to serve as a page anymore.”

Strange, he had the common touch with soldiers, when he did not with his own citizens. Tullus’s spies told him how proudly Martius bore himself in the streets of Rome, too proud to be elected. Foolish of the Romans to give their rabble so much power--in this, he knew, Martius agreed with him.

Tullus did not think, then, of undermining Martius’s gesture, cheap and simple--what cost to him to ask for a sword for the boy? But later he wished he had. It was the beginning.

 

*

"I should kill you for looking at me as you do," said Martius, when next they sparred. Tullus insisted on privacy again, and would until he found a way to triumph. Martius forced his sword down on Tullus’s as if he would cleave the handle from it with its dull practice blade. Tullus sprang back, letting Martius tumble forward.

"How is that?" Tullus asked, feeling, for the first time, physical fear from this confrontation.

"As though I am a beardless boy whose thighs you want to get between,” Martius said, tossing back sweat-slicked hair. So, he did not lack for words when he could use them as weapons. “You said as much to me the night I came. I did not know then, nor do I know now, if you meant to humiliate me or welcome me."

"Could it not be both?" Tullus sprang forward, and with a lucky touch of his sword point, prised Martius's blade from his hand.

"I am already yours," said Martius. “Your prisoner, if you like. Parade me in your triumph.”

"You are, and you are not." He circled Martius. "You may yield now, but if your life were truly at stake, the loss of a sword would not trouble you. You would rush me with hands bared. You would never give up."

"So that is what you want. You want me to yield." Martius tipped up his chin. He was a study in contradictions: the skin almost too pale for a Roman's stretched thin over fine muscles, fluttering with the blood underneath it, etched by hard sinew. And under muscle, a hard spirit, tempered with blood and valor--that would never break, no matter how tattered the skin. "I have yielded already. I have yielded by coming here to you."

Martius came closer as he spoke. His eyes were half closed. It was erotic, there was no denying that for either of them, a dance on this edge of death. Tullus’s breath came quickly, though he moved with caution, keeping his raised sword between himself and Martius, who stepped slowly, hands flexed and open, ready to grasp.

He struck without warning, quick as a viper. Later, Tullus asked for instruction in that move, whatever it was, this god’s trick. How could a man weaponless, feet and hands moving in concert, kick the sword from the hand of an experienced warrior and bend him over in the dirt?

Martius’s Roman voice whispered in his ear, "Should I make you yield here, where none can see? You want no one to see, do you? What goes on here, where the great Attius Tullus Aufidius, champion of the Volsces, is bested, and bested again, where he begs to yield to me? Shall I? Shall I make you yield?"

"Yes," said Tullus. "Make me do it. Make me."

War-hardened hands on his hips, untying his braccae. Spit slicked fingers spreading him. Tullus was hard as the ground he knelt upon. He wished he could take this on his back, and he promised himself that he would, after this, the battle that they both needed. Martius seemed practiced at this--what other boys or men has he taken after battle--did they also beg for it?

"No," said Martius, in Tullus’s ear. His finger had already made a burning entrance. "No," he said again.

Did he want Tullus to plead more?

"No." He dragged a hard phallus between the cheeks of Tullus’s buttocks. He would not beg out loud again, but he strained back, reaching for it, impaling himself more on Martius's fingers. "No,” said Martius again, “you are the victor here, no matter how many times I best you on this ground."

"You deny me even this?" Tullus asked. Too much humiliation now. He would kill Martius, as soon as practicable, by poison or some other trick. That thought did nothing to slake his lust.

"No. Yes. I will do what you wish,” said Martius, uncertain, and Tullus’s anger faded into something else.

Could he order Martius to take him then, and call it victory, even as he yielded? Martius's defeat softened his phallus a little, though it would not take much to prime it into readiness again.

"Later," said Tullus. "In private. After we bathe."

*

Could a man be both imperious and humble? So Martius was after the bath, skin pinked, the fragility of a man, and a man's strength, wrapped around the spirit of a god. Would Tullus appear that way to an observer? No--he was never so unconscious of being watched as Martius was then, stripped, drying off one leg then the other, shaking out his hair with an animal spirit, like a fine hunting dog, in the prime of its life, married intention and action into one force.

Animal or god, never man. Tullus wanted him, as he has never wanted anyone else. And the eyes Martius turned on him, they had lust in them, of that Tullus was sure. Martius could not dissemble, otherwise he would not be here.

He bid Martius follow to his chamber. Tullus’s wife was gone to her family in the country, with peace assured for a time, now that the Volsces most potent enemy is brought to heel. The city could breathe a sigh of relief, open its windows again, all except Tullus, who must hold his dearest enemy to his chest. There was joy in that, but no rest.

"You are the best fighter I have ever seen, who is not myself," said Martius, following Tullus, eyes on, heating where they looked. They were naked behind the shuttered windows.

"I have had to work harder than you, I think," said Tullus. He turned when he reached the mat of his private gymnasium. No bed for this. He looked at Martius, the fine, pale length of his body. Tullus was smaller. As a child, he had to fight even for the chance to train with bigger boys, who grew into bigger men. He was still closer to the size of an ill-fed peasant than a noble warrior. Too long at battle--no rest and starvation rations work stripped hard-won muscle from him.

"Yes, and it served you well,” said Martius.

"You mocked me today.” Tullus tried not to sound petulant. "I offered, and you refused."

"We are, neither of us, boys," said Martius. Hesitation suited him ill, especially with the heat in his eyes.

"The doors are closed. Who is there to see what we do? To see who takes whom, when there is pleasure for all? You have bested me many times, Caius." He dared the private name. "None would doubt your right."

"Yet I am your guest, your dog to set upon your old enemies, like a tame wolf who hates the wild ones for their wildness."

"Is that who you are?" Tullus asked with a hard laugh. "Have I tamed you? I would it not so. There are no rules between us. Let the gods see, and judge as they will."

"Then I have a lust to take you, and not feel so conquered, for a minute or two," said Martius. He worried at his thumb with his teeth, his eyes making the gesture wicked. Tullus flushed all over, as though he were indeed a boy again, seeing for the first time the lust in another's gaze. Yes, he would yield. He wished they were back with the heat and speed of it, in the sand he has bled upon, in the practice ring.

He would take it now, though, skin upon skin, heat upon heat, the measured cruelty of Martius pushing him down on all fours, opening him, this time with salve and a slow relentlessness, where before was ragged passion. He still stung from Martius's roughness before; he still wanted it as much.

Martius dragged his phallus between Tullus’s thighs again; this time his slowness read as reluctance. "What?" Tullus asked with a low laugh. "Don't you know how to drive your sword home?"

"I have not," said Martius. "I am not in the habit of taking boys except between the thighs and it seems--I have not before." He was gruff admitting this.

"It is easily enough done, now that you've toyed with me so much," said Tullus. He could not be more pleased, to be master in this, at least. "But I will show you."

Yes, that was better, Martius on his back, the uncertainty on his face as much of a spur to Tullus’s lust as his mastery ever was. Tullus would ask a fresco painter to render that, the perfect warrior, hesitant. He gave Martius's phallus a few strokes to bring it to its utmost hardness, then sank down upon it, holding Martius imobile with hands and knees. He was the one impaled, but it was Martius trapped, subdued.

"Who is taken now, Martius?" he asked--he could not help it. He did not look to see if anger clouded Martius's brow at those words, too consumed was he with the feeling of it, the hard legs between his own, the slow burn of splitting open. When he did look down at him again, he saw he need not have worried. No, Martius opened his mouth soundlessly, and reached up toward Tullus--some tender gesture that did not belong here--then with an obvious application of will, lowered his hand.

Tullus set a brutal pace, riding his own edge between pleasure and pain, to wring a little death out of Martius, to test him in this battle. And he did, seeing an unguarded look on Martius’s face he had only before seen in combat.

*

For one long day and night they bided in bed. Servants brought wine and food eventually. There were none of the fripperies, of feeding grapes to one another, of sweet nothings, but he took his measure of Martius, and Martius of him, and there was little that one body could do with another that they had not done before they rejoined the public world. Challenges of endurance and technique were laid down, and by the end of it, Tullus could count them equal on this field.

It could not last. Tullus, addled by lust, gave Martius half his men, to train and drill, and watched with despairing eyes as Martius's genius shone.

Of course they loved him. They loved everything about him. The boy who Martius had carelessly gifted with a sword followed him like a puppy. All were drawn to him, as men are drawn to the gods, as a flower turns its face to the sun. Tullus’s jealousy waxed and waned as the moon.

He sent Martius a boy and girl slave, for his lusts, though he still hoped Martius would want to join him. He did not leave Martius entirely untouched, for he came back to Tullus’s bed. He must have seen what he had done, without even trying, turning Tullus’s men, his power from him, unmanning him in public, so in private he let Tullus rake him with nails, mark him, give him pain in their coupling, and when Tullus asked for the same in return, Martius delivered.

"You are not here, you are in Rome with your wife," Tullus baited him, time and again. Martius answered no, he was not, he was there, but as if by rote.

And he drew away. As the men loved him more each day, so too he withdrew from Tullus, making himself into a living citadel, impregnable.

A warrior must breach such an edifice. It was an invitation, and a temptation.

Now, with the vantage of years, Tullus thinks he would have been content to take the honors heaped upon him by Volscian senators, had Martius not betrayed him to his family. Tullus planned and pushed for it to happen, and so he should not have been hurt by that betrayal.

And yet. And yet.

He cannot taste the tang of Martius's blood anymore, though he can still remember what it felt like, falling upon his lip. If he were to finish his memoirs, he might say: "I have no regrets. I did what I must do." And it would not be a lie.

Martius was who he was. Had he been other, he would not have torn at Tullus so. His betrayal was a betrayal of that, the promise he held out that a man could be that perfectly made. No, he was still a man in the end.

"Still a man," says Tullus. His servant does not come to answer a ghost's call. Martius’s shade would not linger here. He walks with brave Achilles, it must be, taken up into a god's embrace, to fight the battles in heaven. He would not wait, Tullus thinks, for the only man alike enough to him that they might never kill each other through strength of arms, only through betrayal.

If he would wait for anyone, perhaps he would wait for Tullus. To walk across the wide plain together, to take up battle together?

"No, you would not wait," says Tullus. "But I will follow."

He puts down his pen, takes up the scroll he wrote upon and casts it into the flames in his fireplace. Let Martius read the words in the smoke that rises up.