Actions

Work Header

i have cut a ribbon of skin from another man's body

Work Text:

Polyxena

*

The first time she meets him is when she is only a girl, and not yet flush with womanhood. She had supposed the gods uninterested in children, still inchoate and with no particular glory to draw the eye, yet there is something unmistakable in his proud brow and in the quickness of his smile. A god, and in such a state! Barefoot and splashing in the water, as naked as any of her playmates, tanned brown by the sun. That she does not lower herself to playing in the water - thinking it a lowly thing to do, akin to bathing in public - suddenly seems a small, mean thing.

"I know you, I think," she ventures, feeling strange and stupid. She is the king's daughter; she will be a queen one day, standing at the side of a conqueror. She cannot quake at this. She is more than what her timidity has made her, she is sure; emboldened, she takes a step forward and stands by the slippery riverbank. Her handmaiden, Deidamia, is with her, clutching at her tunic and trying to guide her away from the rushing water.

"I said," she repeats at his lack of reply, "I know you. You are familiar to me."

"If you know me," the boy finally says, "you do not show it." He turns to face her, careless of his nakedness, squinting up to see her face. "Do you often accost those bathing in the river, princess? Are you so lost for entertainment?"

She stops on the riverbank, conscious of her awkwardness and of her handmaiden looking ever more confused. She knows, suddenly, that no one else can see the boy in the water; that to all other eyes she is speaking to a babbling brook. She hesitates only a moment, then turns to Deidamia. "Go stand by the tree," she says abruptly, gesturing at where the others of her age group are engaged in some sort of tedious game.

Her handmaiden - the stupid girl! - resists. "I am not to leave you alone, princess." She continues to stare into the water, though fear is plainly visible in her face. Her hands ball into fists, as if she was ready to confront an imagined danger with her bare hands.

The boy looks up at the two of them with solemn eyes. "She will not say anything," he says after a moment, forestalling any answer she may have made. "Your handmaiden. She cannot see what you see, and will think you mad, Polyxena, but she will not say a word about it."

"Because you will command her?" She asks, testing. She is already unlacing her sandals.

The boy smiles up at her. He has deep dimples and clear blue eyes, like the sky before a storm. "Because she loves you."

She stops at this, glancing back at Deidamia's anxious face. The ground feels wet and slimy beneath her feet, and she feels self-conscious suddenly as she pulls her tunic off and hands it to the girl who, after all, is only a handmaiden and used to her nakedness. Their hands brush and she feels the pink flood her cheeks. "Wait here," she orders brusquely, then slides down into the cold embrace of the river.

She is aware of Deidamia standing on the bank, precariously leaning over to keep her mistress in sight. And what does she imagine she would do were I to fall? Polyxena thinks, guiltily scornful. After all, she cannot swim.

In the water, the boy continues to smile at her. There is something challenging and feral in his look, in the baring of his teeth. She stops a little way from him, wary. "You are very timid, for a princess," he remarks.

It takes her a moment to find her footing in the rapid rush of water. She thinks any small shock may send her off her feet, and the water is so fast. Who knows how far it would drag her before she gained her feet again? And Deidamia watching it all, helpless...

"Only a fool ignores the danger," she says at last, with a quick glance back at the river on the bank. She takes a tentative step forward. "Are you for my bridegroom, then?"

The boy laughs. "You think yourself so important! No, dearest; not in the least." He closes the distance between them and leans in to her, his mouth brushing her ear. "But perhaps, in the future, this will change. Will you wait for me, then?"

She pulls back. His lips feel cold against her ear, even more so than the cold water rushing around them, as if someone had poured metal into a boy-shape and left him out here as a lure for foolish princesses. She is painfully aware of her vulnerability, her nakedness displaying her lack of weapons. And what could a knife do against a god, were he to want to destroy her, or ravish her? No, no; she will not stand for it. "No more so than is my inclination," she says coolly. "I must marry, to be queen."

He rocks back on his heels and looks up at the sun. His face seems oddly cast in shadow. "Ah, to be put in my place! You have such a short time to achieve your ambitions. I forget what little gnat-like lives you have."

It is a terrifying thought to her, and unexpected. She tastes metal in her mouth, as if a knife-blade has been thrust between her teeth. She tenses, drawing a quick, sharp breath. But the boy does not wish to see her destroyed, it seems. He simply smiles at her again, all teeth and appetite."But don't worry, dearest. I won't forget you. I'll come see you again, whether you wait or not."

The river feels freezing around her, abruptly. "Just the once?" She asks, fighting against her fear. She has heard the tales of those destroyed by the gods, yes; but it is more than that. She knows, also, the fate that awaits those beloved by gods, and it is perhaps a more dangerous one. Greatness follows them, yes; but also the inevitable destruction of all that is around them. The gods leave only ashes as their testimonials.

She does not wish to be a cautionary tale.

"And if it were just the once?" The boy asks silkily.

"Then I should tell you to stay away," she says, resolute. "I am - I do not wish to be just -" she struggles for words. Her fingers are turning blue from the cold, and she cannot feel her feet. She gathers her last scraps of courage around her and thinks, I will be queen. I must be what I would wish for my people. "I wish for more than a child." She does not doubt that this is what he is offering. "I can manage that without the gods' help, I think. And I would rather be known for me, not for what my issue achieves."

The boy regards her thoughtfully. There is something regal and commanding about him, for all that he appears as a boy to her. And fearsome, as well - yes, she can see it plainly enough. One not to be crossed. And yet...

She is still stood in the river, feet buried in the sandy bottom and braced against the rush of freezing water as best as she can.

"Your son will achieve much, yes," he says at last. "But you will not be only known for him. That is what you want to know, is it not?" He reaches up and pulls a hair from his head, glorious and golden. He wraps it around her unresisting wrist and it seems to shimmer as a golden bracelet against her skin. "I will see you again, then, princess. You will have the child, whether you wish it or not - but you will also have the glory you desire. Your people will know you by many names, and I will witness each of them."

"And the death?" She asks, despite herself. She has seen the dead, has tended them and honoured them. And she knows what sort of death she would choose. Not for her the blasted ashes of desire, nor the wailing of a childbed death. "Will I have the glory in death, as well?"

This seems to amuse him more so even than her earlier refusal. "Well. And what would you ask of me, that it should take an army to bring you to your end?" His hand is tight against hers, the fingers bruising in their grip.

"Yes," Polyxena says, shameless. "Yes, I would have that." And the wolves at the door, she thinks, and in her mind's eye she sees a kingdom in mourning over the loss of their queen. An army, and the razing of the world she has seen; yes, this, and more.

The boy pauses, his iron grip still around her hand. Then - quickly, lightly - he turns her wrist so that he may bow over it extravagantly, as if honouring a blessed virgin. "Then it shall be so, dearest." He smiles up at her. This close, she can see the gleaming points of his teeth. "Don't forget to wait for me, my dear. Restrain your appetite for life for just a little while. I shall visit you again." His grip tightens. "And then we shall see."

She looks down at the sharp pain in her wrist, wincing despite her best intentions. And must stop, and blink, and touch her wrist with the numb fingers of her other hand, disbelieving and fearful. For where his fingers touch her - and where the strand of his hair had pressed against her flesh - there is now a thin, delicate bracelet wrought in gold.

"So you don't forget," he says, with another wolf-smile. He is gone too quickly for her to make any protest. The waters simply swell for a moment, hiding him from sight, and when they settle down around her, he is gone.

She is alone in the river. A silly child, half-frozen in the icy water, speaking with ghosts and letting them place a sign of ownership on her in shimmering gold.

When she looks up, she can see Deidamia standing uncertainly on the bank. She has Polyxena's tunic in her hands, twisted and crumpled as she peers anxiously into the river. There is love writ across her childish face, its soft and dimpled features creased into lines of worry.

*

Myrtale

*

She is tired of her marriage bed already.

She will not deny that her husband is handsome, and her uncle could have done worse in his alliances. She is queen of a large and powerful kingdom, and although it is true that it is a barbarian kingdom, she rules it just the same.

Well. Almost.

There are three other wives with precedence over her, and she must produce a son to secure her future. She is not overly worried on this point - there is a gold bracelet on her wrist which is as good as a guarantee - but she is impatient. She wants this to be done and over when she still has youth on her side. Ruling is tiring work... and if her husband should fall in one of his campaigns, she would rather her son be old enough to fend for himself in the inevitable scramble for the throne which would follow.

And still, with all this understood, she does not wish him in her bed this night. It is too hot, and she can feel the bedlinen sticking to her body. She feels unpleasantly damp with sweat, and the air does not help, carrying strange humours into the palace. Deidamia had fetched cool water for her to bathe in, and had rubbed the soreness from her feet and ankles, and even her small, cool hands had not been enough. It is too hot, and she does not wish to be awake, nor touched by anyone.

Tomorrow, she resolves to herself. Tomorrow she will go to Philip, and will call him to her bed. She is at her most fertile these few nights, and...

She is asleep before she completes the thought.

*

She awakes to the feel of a bearded face pressing against her thigh, her bedlinen peeled back from her body. Her limbs feel heavy and lethargic with heat, and she is peeved that her husband would take the initiative. That he would ignore the weather, and her unstated wish for solitude. Surely this could wait until the morning?

"Philip," she mutters, still mostly asleep. "Philip, it is too hot." She pushes at the heat of him, the broad chest and shoulders, warm as a furnace, and huffs inelegantly when he pulls her into his arms regardless. His beard scrapes against her face and she grimaces as heat floods the abraded skin. "Too hot," she complains again, and opens her eyes to scold him properly.

And stops.

"Well," she says, after a brief, speechless moment. Her husband smiles back at her, but although those are his arms wrapped around her, and that is his familiar dark curly hair, those are not his eyes. Philip's eyes are a warm brown, and these eyes are the blue before a storm. Her eyes flicker briefly to the corner of the room, where Deidamia is fast asleep on a mat by her bed. If she should wake... "You came back, after all."

"Of course I did, dearest," the man who is not her husband says, and tightens Philip's arms around her. "I promised I would. Did you not miss me, Myrtale?"

She is wrapped up in the heat of him, now, and yet it is not as frustrating as it had been before. She is awake, her arms about his shoulders, her hair loosed down her back, and the thin gold bracelet bright on her wrist. "Not in the least," she tells him, daring, and kisses him. His borrowed body exudes heat, but his kiss is cold and she drinks him in hungrily.

She can feel the sharp points of his teeth as he smiles.

*

Olympias

*

She must do something. It is unthinkable to stand aside and let this treatment go unanswered! And she must answer the insult to Alexander as well, she supposes, but she has done her duty by her husband and the god both, and he is as strong and as independent as she could make him. He will have his own life, and is almost old enough to not need her support in any case. He will be able to avenge himself soon enough.

No; it is to her own interests she must look. The humiliation of it is bad enough - to be supplanted by a useless young girl, and for what? For what purpose, when she is already strong and powerful and a queen in every sense? - but no, it is not solely the humiliation she thinks on. The practicalities and dangers of it irk her. That an infant should threaten the blue-eyed son she has borne with such risk to her health; that an infant and his stupid, girlish mother should supplant her in the affections of the people! That someone should be able to threaten her when she had thought herself beyond these ordinary dangers? Oh, no, she will not let this pass.

"It is not to be borne," she says to her reflection, and after a moment gives in to the urge and throws her ceramic pot at it. Deidamia flinches as the pot shatters, the perfumed unguents inside slopping down on to the ground in wet clumps. The silver mirror itself is almost untouched, barely dented despite her histrionics, and Olympias is all the more infuriated by this, and by the sight of her handmaiden on her hands and knees, trying to save the perfume with her bare hands before it melts in the heat. To be reduced to this, a fit of rage in her room! And for what, for some stupid little girl who has done nothing but spread her legs and shut her mouth?

Oh, but that is all that was needed, was it not? Because there is no shortage of girls to coax the willing Philip into their beds, but it is the aftermath that is the problem. If she had only produced daughters, and not looked at Olympias with these wide, covetous eyes... then, perhaps...

But, no. She knows herself too well. She knows that any girl taken to queen would have been an insult to her own status, son or no. To have someone else wear the coronet in her place, to have all courtiers and servants treat her with the same reverence they had directed at Olympias herself... No, such an insult cannot be tolerated. Macedonia has had many queens, and not a small number of them have been Philip's wives. But they have been lesser queens, quiet and shrinking into the shadows. They are not who the people cheer for when she is out on the balcony; they are not who the people ask anxiously to intercede for them. She is - she knows, has carefully made sure of this - beloved by them. From an unknown newcomer to a queen who has produced an heir they can be proud of... oh, yes, she knows her value to them.

And still. Still Philip chooses some slip of a girl to crown, simply because she would spread her legs for him without complaint. The indignity of it!

"My queen," Deidamia ventures timidly. She has fetched an empty pot and is scooping the salvaged perfume into it with quick, efficient movements. It would not be something that Olympias should accept, and yet... And yet, even in her rage, she knows that the loss of status also means the loss of funds. If her handmaiden does not save the scent, there will be precious few artisans who would risk the new queen's wrath to create her something new.

The realisation of this makes her flush again, this time with mortification.

Kneeling on the floor, soaked through with the strong scent of dew and flowers, her handmaiden looks up at her with veiled eyes. "My queen, perhaps the king will grow tired of her soon."

It is as salt on her wounds, on the red-raw meat that are her feelings and tender thoughts.

Olympias cannot hide the rage in her face when she turns to look at her. As he tired of me? She thinks, but cannot force herself to say. Instead, "and what would you know of it?" She asks, scathing. "Perhaps you have also tumbled into his bed and spread your legs enough to know his tastes, hmm?"

Deidamia blanches, visibly distressed by the thought, but rallies quickly. She carefully sets aside the small pot of scent and gets to her feet with a curious wounded dignity. "Your majesty knows I would never betray you in that way," she says, and Olympias - foolishly, for she knows it to be a weakness - feels a pang of regret at her words. "I only mean... the king would never discard someone of your stature. You are the mother of his son, and his beloved queen. And - and he must have alliances, and..." her voice gives out and she gulps wetly. She looks down at her clasped hands, hiding her face.

Olympias wishes she still had the rage to tell her that all these things and more had helped secure Eurydice in place. Her son, her relatives, her beauty... well, Philip may as well have asked Olympias if she had a daughter or a younger sister he could have wed, if he had sought someone so exactly like Olympias (and yet not Olympias herself).

He is afraid of her, Olympias knows. Oh, not in the way that some men frighten at battle, and turn to flee; no, not that coward's way for Philip. But he is afraid of how strong she is, and he is afraid - she knows, is certain - that soon, the people will love Alexander more... and through him, her. With all his campaigns and wars, surely he will die on the battlefield. And surely, surely his beautiful golden son would come to power.

And there is a thought in Olympias' mind that she turns to, fretting. There is a thought that says, he knows Alexander isn't his. Knows this, despite the memory of his conception - slightly blurred around the edges, somehow, as if retold to a stranger - and despite the child's strong resemblance to him. He knows, and he will not allow a god's get to rule. Even if Alexander is his, as much any god's. Even if there is no question of legitimacy. But simply because he knows -

Ah. That is the crux of it, is it not? He knows, if he comes to power, the boy will outshine him. And so, Alexander must be taught his place. And through him, Olympias - who is punished for the crime of bearing too good a son.

The injustice of it, the presumption, takes her breath away.

"Besides," Deidamia says after a moment, looking back up, and Olympias is astonished to hear her still speaking, still trying to offer comfort. There is an odd look in her face that had not been there a moment before. "Besides, Eurydice is just a girl. What could such a gnat-life compare to you?" Her voice is clear and strong, and there is none of the fear that had been there previously. And none of the love, as well. Her face and voice are settled and cool, like running water over a stone. And - something else - that phrase...

The realisation is as an ice shower poured over her head, and in an instant she is but a girl again, standing in the freezing river, daring to bargain with a god.

Olympias takes a single step closer to Deidamia, trying to see her face more clearly in the weak light from the shuttered window. Her handmaiden has the same mousy hair and drab clothing, but her lips are curled around sharp eyeteeth and her eyes are a deep blue. They are not the same eyes she has looked into for the last twenty years, and those are not the same hands that have bathed her and held her hand through her birthing pains. And that is not the same mouth that she had -

"The wedding," she hears herself say. "The wedding will give her, and Philip, everything they desire. There will be no going back once that alliance is cemented." She takes another step forward involuntarily; two.

And once they have that, what use would Philip have for his other queen, his other heir?

Deidamia shrugs, the movements somewhat jerky, as if the skin is stretched too tight over a larger form. "The alliance will be successful, yes." She pauses, and there is no mistaking the light in her eyes. "If they live to enjoy it," she says, and smiles around her wolf teeth.

 

*

Stratonice

*

She knows what they call her. Once, it was only when they thought she would not hear. No such consideration is afforded her now; not even a royal execution.

She touches the gold bracelet on her wrist and thinks back to the promise she had received when young, wondering at it. She had thought him many things, but not a liar in things such as this. She is almost out of time, and he is not here. For all his promises on the riverbank... He is not here, damn him.

Her guard has fled, her servants are dead, and the army has backed away from doing the deed despite all the promises the god offered. And so here she is, uncertain if this is her last day or not, facing her would-be assassins alone. He is not here, she thinks again, astonished and affronted. She is as insulted by this as she had been by Philip's pretty new wife. Alas, it is not a situation as easy to remedy.

And yet -

She turns to look at the crowd gathering around her, her hand wrapped around the gold bracelet on her other wrist, as if for comfort. Grim-faced, each of the wretches carries a stone in their hand. The one nearest the back, an old man, hood drawn up around his withered frame, looks familiar about the mouth. She takes an involuntary step back and stumbles, her sandals catching on something. She does not have to look down to see that it is Deidamia's body, her tunic smeared with blood, her limbs distressed on the ground. The army had shirked from the crime of killing their queen, but a handmaiden had been but a moment's work. She had defended her queen when the bodyguards had fled, and had been hacked down for it. The queen's true guard, she thinks, wretched. And so her own hands are smeared with blood, and her mouth as well, from where she had kissed Deidamia and closed her eyes.

"Well," she says, and puts the pitcher down, turning to face them fully. Her heart feels strange, suddenly, as if the weight of it has melted away in her chest, and the numb, cold place left behind is the only reminder of it.

The old man at the back of the crowd, his mouth drawn back over sharp teeth, sketches a bow in her direction. She forces a smile to her face, settling her arms loosely at her sides and facing her assassins face-on. I am not so very timid, for a queen, and I will die with a smile on my lips. She swallows, looking up at the man nearest to her, his face twisted in rage, the stone in his hand. "You shall do as an army, I suppose."

She licks her lips, and there is the taste of metal on her tongue; of iron and of death in equal measure. On her wrist, the gold bracelet feels as heavy as a manacle.

*

fin