“Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.”
(I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this?
I do not know, but I feel it happen and I am torn apart.)
~Gaius Valerius Catullus
He goes to her when he is at his weakest, not sure in truth whether he comes to kill or free her. In the flickering torchlight, he finds her awake and waiting, staring at him across the length of the dusty room. He walks to her slowly, taking her in with his eyes. There have been times – in the ludus, in the arena – when he dreamed of her as of a demon, one of the snarling Dirae with blood-reddened lips, delighting in the torment of mortals.
He recalls all too vividly the night he had her, thinking she was some snooty Roman girl he’d barely met, eager to get a taste of ferocious gladiator lust. At the time, it seemed a prospect free of guilt: a stranger without a face, one he did not hate or love, only a body to lose himself inside, and use her satisfaction to promote his own standing in the house of Batiatus.
What he does not recall is what he felt when the mask came off and Ilithyia’s face stared at him, flushed and horrified. It’s likely that he turned into a beast in truth then, seeking only to destroy her and in her death undo his unwitting betrayal of Sura’s memory; his indulgence in the flesh of the flippant Roman cunt whose husband saw Sura to her doom.
But then and now, this is no demon before him: only a woman in a dirty dress, her hands tied and her fair hair tangled upon her shoulders. He slumps down in the straw before her, feeling raw with the truths and agonies of the day: decisions to be made, Gannicus’s anger, the rage and loneliness in him, and above all, the loss of Mira.
The rough rope has bitten into her slender wrists and there are red streaks upon her throat still, but he has never seen a woman less defeated.
At first, he isn’t sure why he reaches out to touch her. To soothe her injury, perhaps, or cause another. But her skin is smooth under his palms and warms to his touch, though her lips curl in snarling challenge. She bends towards him like an Egyptian snake, poised for strike. He doesn’t cut her bonds but she shrugs her torn dress off her shoulders without ever taking her eyes off him. Without thinking, he places a hand high against her chest, his fingers fanning across the sharp lines of her collar bones.
She smiles at him then, slow and disarming, her eyes bright. “Let us revisit night of revelation, bringer of rain – or do your hands shy from uncouth desire?”
Instead of falling on her like he might have pictured in his nightmares, he sinks down slowly, moving his hands on her as though he were watching himself, his sun-browned fingers on the white swell of her breast.
Her mouth twists even as she moves close against him, bare legs shifting to cup his hips between them.
“Have you missed this?” she murmurs, arching her neck to speak close to his ear. “As I have, in the dreams I hated most?”
He doesn’t trust himself to speak. She’s warm and alive against him, and he is so sick of things that are past or dead. He grabs her tied hands and winds them about his neck, and she doesn’t resist. When he slips a hand down between her thighs, he finds her slick already; she moans when he spreads her wide, sliding two fingers against the wet tender heat of her. Her hips buck to meet his, her thighs riding up against his hand and bare leg. He fumbles his leathers out of the way, drags her close against his aching cock, and gives up thinking.
Gaius’s hands were never without restraint. Even at their most fervent, he held his wife with a consideration that bordered on detachment, making sure to grip no harder than genteel caress, to leave no unintentional mark. It was part of what drew her to him in the beginning, that iron self-control; but the more Ilithyia learned she could not breach it, the more alien his touch became. There came a time when she wanted nothing more than for him to leave a single bruise as proof that even his restraint had limits, that she had but to find the one touch that would see the tethers of his passion undone.
Never to be so.
This is so different: Spartacus’s filthy hands are frenzied against her, one between her legs, the other cupping her breast, thumb circling her hardened nipple. He has bent his head to lick at the other one, and she can’t help but moan; they’re so sensitive these days, tender and enlarged from pregnancy, that the rough scrape of his beard is almost – but not quite – too much.
He has trapped a layer of silk from her dress between her legs – whether on purpose or not – and the thin fabric rides back and forth between his fingers and her swollen cunt. The friction makes her buck up against him, chasing after that double sensation of his calloused fingers and the slippery silk, growing wetter by the moment. She scrapes her knee against the floor and hisses, shifting to keep her momentum. The thin blanket and mildewed straw beneath provide almost no comfort at all, and the rough chafing of the floor mimics the rasp of his beard on her breasts.
As if reading her mind, he moves his hands to cup her buttocks and scoops her up suddenly, reversing their positions in one effortless motion. She remembers that about him, about that wild forbidden night: the way he handled her body casually, turning her this way and that as if he knew her desires intimately; as if there never was a moment’s doubt in him about what she wanted. She loathed it then as she does now, desire mingling with revulsion at his easy assumption that he could foretell her mind and needs. As though he had the right to read her body. As though her knew her at all.
She is cradled suddenly in his lap, her knees splayed wide with his thighs between them. His cock presses hard and warm against her belly, slick at the tip; his fingers move in slow, maddening circles between her legs, the silk dislodged to leave her bare to his touch. She bites her lip and thrusts against the blunt pressure of his knuckles, rubbing herself upon him. His breath hitches when she lifts herself up on her knees, repositions and comes back down with his cock caught between her outer lips and his own fingers. When she slides down deliberately, with his hard flesh trapped between the edges of her nether lips, he makes a strangled noise, deep and agonised. Ilithyia smiles and repeats the motion, darting her eyes at his face in a quick furtive glance. His eyes are shut, as if he didn’t wish to see who is poised above him. Ilithyia snarls silently and with an effort lifts her bound hands from around his neck to reach between them.
Instead of looking at her, his eyes screw more tightly shut when she cups the straining length of him and guides him to her slick and throbbing cunt. He moans as Ilithyia rocks down and forward, hissing relief at the sensation of him sliding deep into her, filling her up with his reluctant, swollen flesh.
He doesn’t think of Sura. The way she laughed close to his cheek, warm breath washing in shivering tremors against his ear; the way her hands knew him and cherished him despite her merciless teasing. He doesn’t think of her fingers dancing provocatively across the wet head of his cock while holding him tight around his base, keeping him from coming until he thought he’d burst. Sura was fire and delight sizzling along every nerve, keeping him safe and treasured even as she fucked him to raw, shattered pieces.
He doesn’t think of her.
She has imagined what it might be like with Varinius, ever since his fingers slipped inside her. He’d play her like a harp, she thinks, prodding and teasing until he had her completely undone, but she can’t ever quite picture him without that patrician smirk, without the full self-possession of his cultured, maddening control. It’s both titillating and frustrating, the way she thinks he’d fuck her: smiling and smug and somehow ever out of reach.
In her darker moments, she’s more than half-convinced she isn’t made to be a wife, a Roman, even human. Her dreams are full of the beings of the in-between world: satyrs and dryads and nymphs, governed entirely by their baser instincts, with no concern for loftier thoughts. She could be the guardian of an altar, she thinks, even some lowly forest shrine: a place of sunlight and magic, where rough woodland dwellers would come to bare their bodies and offer their primitive lusts to her every whim. She’d rut with them through full-moon nights, fuck them slack-mouthed and stupid, and suck the marrow of devotion out of their very souls. She’d be a thing to be reckoned with, carnal and deadly and delightful.
He doesn’t think of Mira. The sweet, fierce clench of her, the way she’d mount and ride him to exhaustion, defying his ghosts and the hurts between them. Mira would see the ways he wasn’t right, the cracks inside him, and she’d embrace him even so, baring her teeth against the broken truth of him, nipping his skin in lieu of the demons that she couldn’t reach. She wouldn’t name him unless circumstance demanded it, ever aware of his unease with the name that isn’t truly his, and never asking what he might like to be called instead. Too late, he came to learn that she was waiting for him to offer it of his own accord.
They’d traced the patterns of each other’s scars and claimed the puckered lines without asking where they came from; there was no room for questions of the bitter past, when Mira was always without regret or compromise, was always brave and warm and now.
He cannot think of her, his fearless archer in her tattered dress and freckled smile, without naming himself a fool and utter coward.
He doesn’t think of her.
She wonders about Lucretia. Sweet, mad Lucretia, so eager to please these days, and yet, there was a time Ilithyia shuddered before her power, curled meekly into her arms in terror and secret delight. How would Lucretia touch her? Would she know what caress is most assured to set her trembling, like she always seemed to know what murmured threat would fire her every nerve? How would Lucretia kiss her, if it was more than a taunt or a coy brush of lips that may pass for friendship: if it was honest passion given free range?
They might dance like Proserpina and her closest nymph on the longest night, before she descends to the twilight realms of Pluto for an endless season removed from light and knowing touch.
Lucretia might know her, she thinks, in a way no other has. Lucretia might see her for who she is and swell to it, ripe breasts and wet cunt, bearing her down upon lush marble and crushed herbs and take her slow and shameless, tongue dancing between her thighs until she screams and sobs and spends. Lucretia might understand and share her nature.
He doesn’t think of the masked woman. Lithe eager desperation beneath him, moving in perfect counterpoint to his every tease and thrust. Long, golden limbs entwined with his, hard nipples taunting him, and the fluid grace of her, as though she truly were a goddess come to earth for a brutish graceless fuck from a mortal.
Her smooth, featureless mask. The gasping horror when he pulled it off, his cock still pulsing against her shrinking thighs.
He doesn’t think of her.
Instinct tells her to close her eyes, to shut out the disgusting reality of what she’s doing, who she’s with. Surely this is excusable if she imagines someone else. Anyone else.
Instead, she watches, fingers dug hard into his shoulders. His lips are opened slightly, framed by his neatly trimmed beard. This close, she can see the reddish tint in it, and in the lashes resting over his closed eyes, twitching as he thrusts up and into her. She wonders idly whether it’s a mark bestowed by the gods, a streak of fire to light his errant path. His arms wrap her warmly as any lover’s, as though he cared for her, supporting her weight, stroking along her flanks and back as if he enjoyed the smoothness of her skin. She resents it. How dare he claim her with equal touch. How dare he pretend that they stand joined in this.
It’s half the strength of his arms that moves her up and down and half the strain of her own thighs, lifting up until she has just the swollen tip of his cock inside her, and then riding back down along the hard length of him. His hips are tense but thrust only shallowly, leaving the full measure of control to her.
She stares at him, knowing she shouldn’t; she writhes against his sweat-soaked, heaving chest, clenches her thighs to make him moan, and hates him almost as much as she hates herself.
He opens his eyes when he feels her gaze upon him. His entire body is coiled tight and hot with hatred, but gods, there’s something intoxicating about her hazy eyes, her parted lips and flushed cheeks.
There are no masks between them this time, nor any master’s command. Against his better judgement, he kisses her, drawn in by the soft pink swell of her parted lips. Her tongue is warm against his, eager and sweet as if she was not repulsed by his touch. Arched in his hands, his mouth, with sprawling thighs and gasping breath, she feels no different from any other woman given over to the demands of her own desire.
She’s almost silent, there is that: mouth dropping open but no sound escaping. He wraps his hands around her slender back and drags her close, trapping the swell of her belly against his straining stomach as he thrusts up to take her, cock swelling inside her. The child is a strange heavy weight between them, bearing down upon him with the motion. Ilithyia leans over him, her fair hair a tangled curtain around them both.
He reaches down to touch her again, slipping his fingers through sparse hair and puts two fingers just there, rubbing and teasing until the quality of her breath against his mouth changes, turning ragged and desperate. He works her hard, one arm wrapped around her buttocks to support the rise and slam of her. Meanwhile he fucks her with cock and fingers, slick and fast. She’s leaning back, letting him take her weight. The arch makes her breasts thrust out, dark pink nipples standing up hard and eager. He surges forward before he can think about it, closes his lips around one and sucks until she makes the faintest noise, a moan cut short by her own teeth against her lips.
He drags his mouth up her chest to her collar bone, chasing the errant pulse in her neck. She’s all odd contrasts in his hands, the bones of her too close to the skin, the soft weight of her belly and the swollen tips of her breasts.
He pulls her closer still, to feel that odd foreign bulge, distending in a sudden ripple as if in response to his fervour. I’m sorry, he thinks at it, fogged by lust and regret, I’m so sorry. You deserve better.
Better than father hating mother; better than the world they live in, where one may lay claim of ownership upon another’s flesh and soul and not feel the smallest twinge of conscience.
She’s rocking into him, against his cock, his mouth. There’s a coiled angry heat in him that lights her into frenzy, makes her roll her hips against him hard, deliberately thrusting her breasts into his lips and hands. His fingers between her legs are driving her insane and she is having trouble maintaining her pace upon his cock, her legs grown shuddery and weak. His arm grows steely around her, taking more of her weight as he forces her back up and down, and with a growl she takes her control back, rolling her hips low and tight against him and gods, his fingers twist and nudge just then and she comes with a sobbing gasp, thrusting and clenching. He makes a rough noise against the base of her throat, and his free arm tightens with bruising force around her hips. She can feel him, softening heat and wetness between her legs, and the sudden slump of vulnerability in his shoulders. She drapes herself across them, breathing against his neck.
He holds her close. He cannot think. He cannot hate, or love, or anything in between. He cannot still the flow of time and remain like this, blissful and spent and never thinking.
“Would you not have this every day?” she murmurs against his rapid pulse, her own breath still coming in harsh gasps. Her tied wrists ache and chafe. Small aftershocks are still rolling through her, tightening her cunt and belly. Gods curse him, but he is formidable. She pictures him, for a moment, in a dungeon like this, but at her disposal: hers to command, to threaten, to make him fuck her whenever she feels the need of unrestrained hands upon her.
It doesn’t quite work. She can’t picture him other than looming over her, sneering his disdain; then fucking her anyway, because for all his lofty words he’s still no more than a beast enticed by the heat and smell of cunt.
“It could be so,” she continues, dragging her mouth from his neck to his ear, along the pounding line of his hidden blood. “You could keep me here, if you so chose. Your willing slave in this very dungeon. I could send message to my husband, delaying his action. I could aid your rebellion.”
She breathes, hot damp air against his lips, and watches them part in response. “This could hold meaning,” she tells him, urgent and low. Let him believe it. If she can but gain a day or three, letting him think her drawn in by his pathetic cause, she could gain the advantage. She knows she could. She learned to play men by the time she was eleven.
He’s not like other men, there is that: not properly, not like a Roman. But he is governed by the same desires and ideals: all of them illusions that she knows how to bend to her own designs. All she needs is for him to believe her quite so simple as to be drawn in by principle or passion.
He drags his eyelids open to look at her; to make his eyes attempt to bridge the gap between them. Gods, but she is beautiful. He’s seen her primped and polished to a blinding glow, but she has never looked so lovely as just now, tired, unpainted, and triumphant with her pleasure spent.
His knuckles brush her cheek, thumb tracing the slight hollow underneath one eye. “Ilithyia,” he murmurs, trying the syllables in his mouth like a foreign spicy dish. She smiles, turning her face into his palm like a kitten seeking warmth.
“You seek to offer honeyed comfort in a cup of poison,” he tells her, softly. He watches as her face changes, fascinated against his will. It’s a subtle shift behind her eyes, a barely perceptible tightening of her jaw. Her lips twitch for but a moment as if in pain, and then all softness is gone and he is looking into a face of ivory, each bone honed to an exquisite, cutting edge.
She leans out of his arms abruptly, all but throwing herself back against the rough stone of the wall. Her swollen belly heaves.
“Would that my poison were the very air,” she says, in a low-voiced, vicious hiss, “shrinking your last breath with agony.”
He extricates himself from her stiffened body without a hint of grace, all his limbs feeling weighted with lead as he stands.
“I wish…” he says awkwardly to her sprawling form, but faced with her level, icy glare, he finds he has nothing to say.
She watches him go, aware of the tight thrum of fury through her blood, barely contained by her veins. She feels like any moment now they might expand and give under the pressure, spilling out her life with the strength of her hatred. Her thighs are slippery still, her nether lips tender and swollen from their rutting.
Her belly ripples in response to her emotion. Absently she curves a hand around it, soothing its restless writhe. Surely this child must emerge raging into the light, ready to conquer and consume the world and spit back upon it all the wrath it absorbed in her womb.
“We shall have his heart yet,” she tells it softly, in the stale empty air of her lightless dungeon. “If not with tender words, then on a spike upon roaring flame.”