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O Most Unthankful

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"This is even worse!" declared Arthur, looking up from the book with fire in his eyes.

I sighed, closed my eyes to steady myself, and prayed momentarily for a vision of how to refrain from hitting a fractious pupil. Since no vision came to aid me, I waited a minute more to calm my heartbeat, then opened my eyes and said steadily, "You cannot deny that he truly cares for Patroklos."

"Yes, but look what stupidity he commits in the name of friendship! First he says that he won't fight . . . then Patroklos dies and he says he will fight . . . Which is worse, to refuse to fight when you should, or to fight when your mind is filled with nothing but petty revenge? He desecrates the body of Patroklos' killer – you can't do that! The enemy will take its cue from you as to how it should treat corpses and prisoners in its care. Achilles is bringing his people into danger again – no prince worth his name would do that."

"Not even out of friendship?"

"Especially not out of friendship. A prince must not allow his feelings for those he loves most cause him to neglect his duty."

I stood in the doorway, looking at Arthur's face, which had turned hard as flint. He was standing erect again, as unbending as a spear, and his arms were folded, pushing up an arm ring I had given him as a present on his previous birthday. It was of an old Celtic design, but to appease Belin I had ordered it made with a small cross in the design.

My mind was functioning sluggishly; although I was trying to think of an appropriate passage from Homer, the only words that came into my head were, "O most unthankful . . ." I was being foolish; this was simply a boyish fit of temper, such as any young man might show. Surely Arthur valued what I taught him . . . surely he did.

I surrendered to the words finally – it was hard not to think of surrender when in Arthur's presence – and turned to a chest that lay in the corner of the room. Putting aside the heavy holy book that lay atop it – a gift from Belin, to aid in Arthur's Greek studies – I raised the lid. There was no lock upon the chest; it had not taken me long after my arrival here to realize that a lock was too strong a temptation for Cai's prying eyes. As it was, the sacred book atop the chest had evidently persuaded Cai that the contents of the chest were equally pious and dull, for when I pulled up the top I saw that the scrolls remained as I had laid them four years before, untouched even by dust.

I found the scroll I wanted and stood up. Arthur was watching me with the resigned look of a pupil with a foolish taskmaster; I had seen him give the same look to the villa's head groom, who was notoriously bad at training horses. Ignoring the coldness that had touched my stomach again, I stepped forward and opened the scroll, saying, "These two pages. Then you can go to dinner."

Dinner was still an hour away, but looking at Arthur's face as it returned to hardness, I wondered whether it would take until midnight before the prince deigned to finish his assignment.

Which meant that it would be well past midnight before I came to my own sleep. Sending up another prayer to the gods for patience, I left the chamber.

o—o—o

I had already reached the summer room before I remembered; then I cursed myself. For four years, against all odds, I had maintained good relations with Belin, and one of the reasons I had managed to do so was because I had always shown him beforehand any texts I would assign to Arthur. Belin had forbidden me to use only a handful of the texts I had shown him over the years; it took me little time to realize that this would have been one of the few.

I hesitated a moment, wondering what would be the best course to take now; then I molded my heart into courage and went searching for the priest, to make my confession.

I found him, appropriately, in the house's chapel. It had been a shrine to Mithras in the old days; Belin was not above desecrating other men's sacred places. To be fair to him, he probably thought he was bringing the shrine into the use that its original creators would have wanted, had they been so fortunate as to know of the Anointed One. Unlike some priests I had met over the years, Belin was refreshingly free of talk about pagan demons and their devillish followers; instead, he spoke of the fulfillment and summation of all good things in the Anointed One.

He was innocent of the fact that anyone might be offended upon being told that they adhered to a childish faith. I had not disillusioned him, partly because he was a good man in his own way, but mainly because he and his clergy friends were of too much importance. I had been in Ravenna when Rome's fourteen-year-old emperor was deposed there, partly because the Bishop of Salona denounced him.

Belin was not praying; he was reading from a bound wax tablet. At first I thought it was the letter from Uther, but as I came closer I saw that the tablet's seal was not red but golden.

He looked up as I stopped next to him, and I said, "Bishop Dubricius has written to you?"

He nodded; his face was shining with joy. "He has asked me to send him the treatise I told him of, on the Blessed Paul's denunciation of pederasty."

I sat down on the bench beside him. The chapel was small, having originally been part of the larger room beside it, and then walled off when some earlier priest had decided that this mixing of sacred and secular was unwise. A tortured man hung from the wall – Belin was fashionable in his artistic tastes, and he preferred this design over the bare crosses that hung in most churches and chapels that I had seen. I slid my gaze away from the atrocity – after all, I reminded myself, my own ancestors had not been adverse to shedding blood for sacred purposes, though they had not gone so far as to revel in the agonizing death of a god. The altar below the cross was more to my taste, having been consecrated originally to an older god, as could be seen from the fact that the lettering of dedication had been hacked away.

The chapel was otherwise beautiful, filled with candles and incense and spring flowers. I breathed in the spice of the incense – I recognized it as one of the spices I had brought as a gift from the old Empire four years before – and tried to think what approach I should take in my confession. It did not appear that this was the best time for raising such a topic.

Belin, thankfully oblivious to my thoughts, said, "He says that he would like to use the treatise to help him compose a homily on the subject."

"Indeed?" I said. "That is a great honor."

Belin nodded, continuing to smile. "That such a great and influential man should value my thoughts on the subject is humbling to me. I hope that he will not be disappointed by what I have to offer. All that I have done is suggest some scriptural support for the Holy Church's condemnation of pederasty."

Belin was always the most polite of men; he never used words such as "sodomy" in the presence of an unbeliever. I said, "Surely that is not a matter that is under debate among the Anointed One's followers?"

The priest shook his head, his smile fading. "You would be surprised, Merlin, what wicked arguments men will make in the name of God. The bishop has among his flock some men and youth who, having lapsed into this sin, refuse to show proper contrition, but instead argue that the Blessed Paul did not condemn pederasty but some other sin instead. They quote the Blessed Hippolytus, who said that the Blessed Paul was speaking of those who take part in the orgiastic rites of the mother goddess. But I believe this is a misinterpretation of the letter to the Romans, and that the true interpretation of the passage can be found by examining the letters' later use of the words arsenokoites and malakos . . ."

He continued on for some time in this vein, with me pretending to show great interest – and indeed, I can always stay attentive to a good discussion of translation problems, however trivial the text may be. When Belin reached the point where he was preparing to describe the use of malakos in Homer to refer to Achilles' "soft bed," I interrupted him and said, "But does your holy man Paul say why he is opposed to pederasty?"

"That is clear from the words he uses," Belin replied promptly. "A malakos is a soft man, an effeminate man, one who has allowed himself to be used for the sexual pleasure of another man, as a woman should properly be used. 'Men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another . . .'"

This was tiresome; I had heard this argument made by too many would-be philosophers over their drinks. "I can see that might be true of men," I said mildly, "but we are not talking about men, we are talking about youths. Surely at that time of life, the role of a young man is to follow, not lead, and it would be as improper for him to serve as master over his lover as it would be for a woman to serve as master in a marriage."

Too late, I remembered that it is never wise to try to argue philosophy with followers of the Anointed One; they always end up appealing to their holy book as certain proof that their god ordained such-and-such an action. Belin, who had turned concerned eyes toward me, said, "Good Arnobius speaks of how the King of Pessinus sought to withdraw his son from so disgraceful an intimacy, but spurned on by the frenzied madness of his lover, the youth mutilated himself—"

I stood up hastily, my head swimming from the sudden rise. For a moment, I thought that I was on the edge of a vision, but then I saw before me only the priest, staring up at me with the benevolent concern of a holy man who has failed to assist a soul that has strayed from his god's ways.

"I am out of my depth in these matters, I fear," I said with a smile. "I would appreciate it if you would lend me a copy of your treatise so that I may learn more on this subject. For now, though, I must return to my pupil."

Belin nodded, satisfied with this excuse, and turned his attention back to the tablet. I left him in the chapel with the flickering candles and made my way hurriedly down the corridor as the bells began to chime for dinner. No, not a good time for a confession, I thought. My best course of action would be to take the scroll back and return it to its hiding place.

I could only hope that Arthur had not read far.

o—o—o

The schoolroom was red with the light of sunset by the time I reached it. The evening's long shadows accentuated the peeling of the walls' murals, the chips upon the paving stones, the cracks within the aging furniture. It had been many years since Ectorius' family had had the leisure to keep this house in proper order, and though Cai had proved to have a gift in such matters, even he could not keep the hypocaust running or the baths in repair. Not when most of the men on this estate spent the summer months at the border, holding back the Picts.

Arthur had already lit the brazier against the cool of the dusk; it was dancing brightly at a safe distance from the books in the chamber. The youth himself was not at the reading table but standing at the window, looking out onto the western part of the estate, where the field-hands were at work. So far Ectorius had been successful in keeping the Picts from ravishing his land, as the Saxons had done in southeastern Britain.

Arthur did not turn when I entered. This was not because he was unaware of my presence; I could be sure of that. Arthur might be isolated from court affairs in this northern estate, but Ectorius had arranged for him to be trained by some of Britain's finest men-at-arms, including a friendly Pict who had taught Arthur to hear a fieldmouse creeping up upon him. Uther would have been in awe of his son's war skills, if he had ever bothered to ask after them.

I looked at the reading table, and my breath whistled in. I had given Arthur one of the play's scrolls, but now all four scrolls lay upon the table. One was rolled up on both sides, and I opened it to see which portion of the text Arthur had been reading. Then I cursed myself inwardly once more. I had forgotten that the book was illustrated.

Little wonder that the boy was silent; he must be wondering whether my next action would be to introduce him to bloody pagan rites. I cleared my throat and said, "Did you finish the translation?"

"Not all of it." Arthur's voice was faint, and he did not turn. "The play . . . It's not like I thought it would be."

"Well, The Myrmidons is a very old play." I tiptoed carefully through the conversation, as though I were making my way through a hall of sleeping barbarians. "I obtained it from a man I met in my travels, who had taken it from a library. Stolen it, actually, but his motive was good: he feared for the book's safety, amidst all the upheavals in his country. And indeed, the library was burnt by barbarians a few months later. The book is several centuries old – that is why it is written in scrolls rather than bound as a codex – and the play itself is a thousand years old."

"Oh." There was nothing in Arthur's voice to reveal whether he was interested in what I was saying.

I said, feeling my way somewhat desperately over the treacherous ground, "The man told me he had asked others about the play, but nobody he spoke to had heard of it – he feared that this was the last remaining copy. Some of the people of his land were giving over their most valuable books to the priests and priestesses of their various faiths, whom they trusted would remain protected by their gods. But this man, who was a follower of the Anointed One, did not believe that he could give such a book to his priests, so he asked me to take it and protect it with my magic."

"And did you?" Arthur's voice was still colorless.

"Well, I brought it here, to a part of the old Empire that has not yet fallen to the barbarians. That is the best I can do."

"But you have not used your magic?"

I smiled. "You know better than that, Arthur. I am granted visions from the gods. Sometimes I have the power to help others to see visions. That is all."

"It is enough."

For the first time, there was a flash of emotion in his voice, like a spark leaping from the fire, and I waited to see whether it would illumine our conversation, but Arthur added nothing more. He continued to stand at the window, staring out upon the gathering dark.

After a long while he said, "The play is different from Homer."

"Yes, it was written several centuries after The Iliad was." I spoke more slowly; I could almost see the sleeping warriors springing up around me. "For one thing, as Plato points out in The Symposium, Aeschylus portrays Patroklos as younger than Achilles, although Homer says that Achilles is the younger of the two. Of course, by Aeschylus' time the nature of such friendships had changed. I suppose that, since Achilles was in many ways the master of Patroklos, Aeschylus found it difficult to imagine Patroklos as the older lover."

I waited, holding my breath, and after a time Arthur said, in a low voice, "Yes, I hadn't . . . I hadn't expected that. From the way Homer describes them, I thought they were just friends."

I waited a moment for further comment, and then said, "You have read references to such matters in other books I have shown you."

Arthur nodded, his gaze fixed upon some distant object. "But I always thought that it was meant to be symbolic, in the same way that the Song of Songs in the Bible represents Jesu and his Church. This was more . .. fleshly."

I was still holding open the scroll; I let it close and released my breath in a long sigh. "Arthur, I am sorry," I said quietly. "I should not have shown you this."

He turned then, in his usual swift manner. Though the room was darkening, I could see the surprise on his face. "I didn't mind you showing it to me," he said. "It's just . . ." He stared down at the scrolls, as though he could see again what was there. "You aren't married."

"No," I agreed, wondering what was on his mind.

"You can't marry, can you? Your power would be lost if you lay with a woman."

"So the traditions of my faith say," I replied with a smile. "I have never cared to test the matter."

"And . . . and if you lay with . . . That is . . ."

He was still staring downward; I could not catch his eye. I walked forward and knelt in front of him, putting my hand up to cup his cheek. "Arthur," I said quietly, "I am not a sodomite. I have never lain with a youth, and when I was a youth I had no opportunity to lie with a man. Put that fear from your mind."

He did not move from my touch, but his eyes were wide and he swallowed heavily, as though facing a mighty opponent. "Oh," he said. "So the pictures. . . You don't know what . . . I mean, you don't understand . . ."

It came to me then, like a thunderflash brightening a dark night, and I stood hastily, withdrawing my hand. Arthur swallowed again, and for a moment I thought he would retreat back to the window, but that was not his nature. He looked up, waiting.

I looked back at him, and I was seeing what I had known with my mind was there, but not with my heart.

"Youths, not men," I had told Belin, but if I had thought the matter through, I would have known that the two categories overlapped.  Since his fourteenth birthday, Arthur had been a man – by law and no doubt by his own assessment. Certainly his body was that of a young man rather than a boy – though he still had the slenderness of a youth, his shoulders were beginning to broaden, and there were soft hairs upon his cheek that had not been there the year before. Even his voice was beginning to change.

It had not been so long ago that Arthur would come to me at night when he had an evil dream, and I would hold him in my arms until he had fallen asleep and could be returned to his own bed. When had he stopped doing this? It was not hard for me to remember: his visits had ceased the previous winter, not long before his birthday. No doubt he had been waiting since that time for me to acknowledge his entrance into manhood, and to change my lessons accordingly.

And I, fool that I was, had continued to treat him as a young boy. Yet who else was he to go to for such instruction? His foster-father was rarely home, Cai could not be expected to know much more than Arthur did, and Belin, good man though he was, would have turned pale with shock if he had been asked the sort of questions that a youth naturally has. I found myself wondering whether Arthur had despaired of being taught by other men, and had instead taken his own education into hand by tumbling the serving maids.

It appeared not; he was looking up at me expectantly, with the same expression his face had held on the day I introduced him to the mysteries of Greek.

I pulled forward a stool and sat down, using the time to frame my next words. Then I said carefully, in a matter-of-fact tone, "I have no experience in such matters, but certainly I have gained knowledge over the years. I have read widely the writings of the old Greek authors, who often spoke of such things, and during my visit to the old Empire I often saw pottery with decorations that depicted these practices. I also spent much of my time among soldiers and sailors, who are notorious for talking about how they spend their leisure hours."

I stopped then, deciding that it would be best not to reveal that I had also attended a number of decadent dinner parties where, if I had wished, I could have taken detailed notes. The youth licked his lips and nodded, apparently satisfied with my qualifications as an instructor. I continued, "If you have any questions, I should be more than glad to try to answer them."

Arthur looked down: the tips of his sandals now occupied the attention he had formerly focussed upon the scrolls. After a while, he said, "It's not so much questions I have . . . Not specific questions, I mean. I was just wondering . . ."

"Yes?" I tried again to catch his eye. It was not often that Arthur showed this much reluctance to face his opponent.

He raised his gaze finally; he had the look of a soldier venturing onto a battlefield where defeat has been predicted. He said, in a clear, unwavering voice, "I was wondering whether you could show me."

All was silent. The house's inhabitants had retreated to the east wing, where the kitchen and dining room were located. Even the birds had grown still with the twilight. Nothing stirred; no one spoke.

And in the end I saw what I had never thought to see in my life: Arthur retreated from the battle.

His flight put an end to my paralysis. I moved hastily to the door, but caught only a glimpse of the youth as he dashed out of the corridor through a doorway into the courtyard. I remained where I was for a moment, and then walked over to one of the corridor windows. Arthur was already at the well and was dashing water from a bucket over his face. His back was to me, and all I could see were his tunic and breeches, and his tanned arms, and his hair cut short, Roman-style. The shadow of the western wing, where I stood, fell upon him.

Not a boy, but a youth. Not a full-grown man, but a youth. And I was his tutor. He had asked this of me, as he would have asked no one else.

I gave no thought to myself. That was what I remembered afterwards: that I did not have to ask myself what my own feelings were. Sometimes my visions remain hidden within me until the moment I need them; this was the same.

What mattered rather was where my duty lay, and that was a harder thing to decide. I knew well what the consequences for Arthur would be if this were discovered by others. It had been many years since such activities had been openly practiced, and I had heard that, in what remained of the Empire in the East, there was talk of reviving the old laws against this. I knew also that this outlawing had come about, not only through pressure from the Anointed One's followers, but also through pressure from Romans who held to the older gods, but who had come to fear such alliances. "So disgraceful an intimacy . . ." The sentiment could be traced back to Plato.

I had made my mind up on such matters long ago, but Arthur had been raised differently than I. Was it fair to lead him away from the tenets of his faith? Or rather – I remembered Belin's complaint about the strayed members of the bishop's flock – to lead him away from the tenets put forth by the leaders of his faith? Arthur would have burdens enough in the coming years; why place yet another upon him?

I hesitated, and then walked to the doorway to the courtyard.

I met Arthur as he was walking across the courtyard toward the doorway. He had made the decision to return to the battle, and when he saw me, he did not hesitate, but came forward and said, in a voice too quiet to be heard by those in the eastern wing but nonetheless strong, "I wish to apologize, sir. I hope you will forgive me for making so offensive a suggestion."

It was as courtly an apology as Uther himself might have made, if Uther had been in the habit of making apologies. It was not a boy's apology, and it was not a youth's apology. It was the apology of a full-grown man, one who has put aside the lessons of youth and taken on the burdens of full manhood.

And that was what speared my heart. The day would come when this would be all that Arthur knew: the continued burden of having to be a full-grown man – and such a man as could never turn to others for leadership, for it is the added burden of the High King that he alone must make the final decisions. That was a burden I knew Arthur understood and was willing to take on, but it was too early, far too early. Before that happened, he should be allowed the opportunity that all young men his age had, of being guided by others into manhood.

That was why he had asked this of me; but he was willing to put his desire aside, if I did not want this.

I said softly, "I am not offended." And then I drew him into my arms, kissing him on his damp forehead as I did so.

He lay still within my arms, though he had placed his arms lightly about my back; his head, which was still a few inches below mine, was bowed upon my shoulder. After a moment I drew back, and he looked up at me, his face filled with uncertainty.

I would have liked to have embraced him again, but my back was prickling, and I had learned during my travels through the old Empire to heed my back at such moments. The one time I had ignored such a warning, it had taken me six months to recover from my injuries.

Raising my voice so that it could be heard by anyone standing nearby, I said, "You did not finish the translation?"

"No, sir." I could see the flash of disappointment in Arthur's eyes as I changed the topic, but he quickly hid his expression and waited obediently.

"Go and finish it now; then you can join us at dinner."

"Yes, sir." Arthur bowed his head; I suspected his main reason for doing this was to hide the tightening of his throat. He began to step past me.

I laid my hand on his shoulder, as I often did in passing, and said, in a low voice that did not carry beyond the youth next to me, "When the others are asleep, come to my chamber."

Then I walked past him, without looking back.