Blue Plate Special -- Thirst

*This was the first story I sold, and, again, one of the ones that's available for free in my collection in the Baen Free Library.  It is the one that killed several magazines and one editor -- i.e. they bought it, they died -- including one (the first, Bloodsongs) through getting its entire first print run confiscated and destroyed in Australia.  I didn't think it was that controversial, but I wrote it while recovering from complications of child birth and high on (legally obtained) morphine.  Warning, it contains vampires.  Also warning, it is set in ancient Rome and involves historical homosexuality and (though not considered that at the time) pedophilia.  Not in any way approving of it, but your mileage may vary.  I'd researched this to do a time-alternate novel.  I NEVER meant to write this short story.  But it had other ideas and wanted to be written.  Turned out to be the first I ever sold (though the second I sold that got published.) Again, as always, kindly remember this was written ...  almost twenty years ago.  I hope I've gotten better, though this story being sort of itself more than mine, I'm not sure about that.*

"Sing to me of that odorous green eve when crouching by the marge

 

You heard from Adrian's gilded barge the laughter of Antinous

And lapped the stream and fed your drought and watched with hot and hungry stare

The ivory body of that rare young slave with his pomegranate mouth"

(Oscar Wilde, The Sphynx)

Thirst

Sarah A. Hoyt

Sometimes I wake up in the evening and think them here, immaterial wisps of dream in the cold twilight air, and yet undeniably themselves: the Emperor and the boy he loved, etched by time into heroic figures without flaw.

The Emperor wears his purple, and the boy stands in one of those sweet, head-drooping postures immortalized in his countless statues.

And sometimes, confused by a day of death-sleep and the centuries that have flown heedless by my changeless self, I reach for them, try to clutch them in my long-dead yet immortal hands.

They laugh and vanish through my fingers like smoke. As they did so many centuries ago.

In those moments, I am again a nameless thing, crouching on the muddy banks of the ancient Nile, my mind filled with hatred, my body with thirst, while I stare at the gilded Imperial barge anchored in the dark waters. And I hear again the laughter of Antinous.

Hylas is my name, or was my name, when I was a mortal among mortals, a living, breathing being in the sun's embrace. A Greek name for a Roman boy born in the Suburra, raised in that maze of smelly, noisy streets that was the pulsing heart of Rome.

My father was a Greek freedman, a grammarian who grew prematurely old teaching Greek and writing to uninterested students on the sidewalk, in front of our insula. My mother, suavely rotund, wasted her life bent over the cooking fire. Both of them were mere props in the stage of my life. I can't recall a thing they said, nor anything they taught me.

They lived in two smoky rented rooms in an insula, a vertical slum, where people crowded side by side and on top of each other, crammed together as close as possible, for the wealth of the rich landlords.

My own life was not confined to such a prison. My true teachers, my true instruction, were in the streets. From other boys, my neighbors, I learned all there was to know. Who could be safely robbed, where to buy the best wine, and just the right time to go to the entrance of the Circus and get the seats closest to the arena, from where we could scream encouragement at our favorite gladiators and hoot the cowards.

I will forever remember those afternoons as the best of my childhood: the sun-dappled, bloodstained sand, the certainty that life and death were shows played for my entertainment.

It all came to an abrupt end the Summer I turned fourteen. Late at night my friends and I waited in the darkened portal of an insula for wayward citizens, full of wine and gold, making their way home through unlit streets. That night I tried to cut the wrong purse. We couldn't have guessed who he was. A merchant, we thought him, because of his colorful, expensive clothing. But we didn't think him rich, certainly not noble, since he walked the streets of Rome alone without a single slave for escort. We were wrong. Publius Aelius Hadrianus, as he then was, thought himself invincible and reveled in facing alone the danger of Rome's streets.

He immobilized me quickly. I thought he would call the sebaciara. But he was full of wine and mirth, and I amused him more than angered him. Besides, I had dark flowing curls, the face of a girl and the well-muscled body of a young thug. All of which he liked, as I would come to know, when our acquaintance became such that I could call him by the familiar diminutive of Adriano.

For the next two years I followed him. To the end of his stay in Rome, where he was house-guest of his cousin Trajanus, the Emperor, then to the far reaches of the Empire with the legions he commanded. He gave me better food than I was used to, better wine than I'd ever tasted, and a position no one disputed. Even rude legionaries spoke graciously to me because I was the commander's page... or lover, or any other name you might care to call it. All of them meant I held power not to be ignored. Two years I lived with him. He was strong and admired, built like a hero's statue, with reddish hair and beard, and dark gray eyes that could see to the depths of my soul.

He taught me to read, and schooled me in rudimentary Greek, amused that I, the son of a grammarian, had never come by such gifts. And he read aloud from the Odyssey and the odes of Virgil and told me of Alexander and Julius and Augustus.

When I was sixteen or maybe seventeen we set out for Rome. To visit.

I never got there alive.

Of late, he had been growing curt and impatient with me. He found his joys elsewhere. Other boys and women, camp followers, common local whores... Not that he had ever been faithful or that those had ever been altogether absent from his bed. But now their company was preferred to mine, and if he talked to me at all, it was to remind me of my shortcomings, to mumble improbable reproaches at me for my cruelty and crudity.

I knew what caused it. My body was changing as I became, to all eyes, a man, and it wasn't decent to keep our type of relationship once the boy's masculinity asserted itself.

On our way to Rome we stopped in Athens. While he renewed old acquaintances of one type or another, I found the solution to my problem.

It was late at night, in a tavern where I'd strayed foolishly unaccompanied, proudly confident in my street-wise ways years after I had given them up. A tall pale man sat at my table and bought me drink after drink, even though he never touched his. He spoke of his childhood in the times before Rome, and of the joys of immortality. Liquor and his blue eyes intoxicated me. I followed him out of the tavern, to the fields outside the city. There I lay upon the soft, plowed earth. I thought I knew what was coming.

But instead of the familiar grinding of body against body, his weight crushing my squeezed-together thighs, there was the suave caress of a cold hand against my neck, parting my curls like a curtain, and the sharp, painful kiss that tore my skin, that took my blood, that left me drained and half-dead, lying senseless on the still-warm ground.

Little by little, consciousness returned to me. Consciousness and a sense of loss.

I sat up with too much effort, too much pain. I felt heavy and swollen, like the corpse of one who has drowned, turgid with water and death. And yet, to my eyes, my wrists were as thin as ever, my fingers long and delicate, my small feet effortlessly encased by the gold-laced sandals.

I stood up. My throat was dry and gritty. Each of my joints blazed with pain that burst forth anew with every action.

I walked to town. I don't know how. I also don't know how long I wandered, lost, trying to find my way to the home where we were guests. Some memories were forfeited to the death that even then gripped me. I remember my master's voice, seemingly out of nowhere, merry with wine and tender with amusement, saying, "Hello there, Hylas, Hylas of the sweet locks, how much wine have you had? Can't I let you go out on your own?"

And then his arms surrounded me, supported me, and I felt myself fall, let myself fall, into endless darkness.

When I woke up I believed myself back in my the dark rooms of the insula, the wooden shutters closed against the rain, penning in the thick odors of sweat and cooking and frustrated humanity, all of it lit by the wavering light of a single candle.

"Mother?" I called diffidently.

"Hylas?" a tired voice asked out of the shadows, a man's voice that bore no resemblance to my mother's. "Hylas, are you awake?" The accent of Iberia, where he was born, was thick upon my master's tongue as I'd never heard it. The light of the candle moved around in the dark room, heavy curtains parted just a little to let a thin dagger of light pierce my eyes with unbelievable pain.

"Thirsty," I said, my voice lethargic and low. "I am thirsty."

Adriano moved closer to the couch where I lay. His hair was freshly combed, perfumed, curled. He wore a colorful, loose-fitting, short tunic, as Greek men would wear at home.

I felt ill and scared. Why was he nursing me personally through my illness? Why not entrust me to a slave? So that he could accuse me of stalling his journey to Rome?

He set the candle down on a candlestick. I heard water pour from a pitcher to a cup, then the cup was at my lips, rough silver against skin.

I took one swallow, two. Water, dead and horribly cold in my mouth. Stagnant. Poisonous. I spit it out in his direction, pushed his hand away, that held the cup.

"Are you trying to poison me?" I asked, angrily.

He took in breath sharply.

I realized I could smell him, as I had never smelled another human being. I could smell his life, the pulsing of blood in his body. It was the smell of ground after a rain, the sound of a mountain spring. My throat ached, parched.

"Hylas," he said, gravely. "Hylas... have you... What happened to you? What did you do last night?"

My head ached. The odor of him was unbearable temptation. "Why would you care?" I asked. "Did you ever tell me where you go when you leave alone?"

In the silence I heard his breathing, noisy to my sharpened senses. I could hear as I had never heard before. I could hear the house around me, all of the house. Slaves argued in the hallway. The matron discussed poetry with a female friend. Somewhere a baby cried. Above all, over all, through every fissure and crevice in the walls and door, through every pore in the stones, through every opening in the hanging draperies, the smell of people, the smell of life, the smell and sound of warm blood running vital through tireless veins came at me.

My throat hurt.

Adriano held my wrist. His skin felt rough and callused against mine. And warm.

"I don't want to argue, Hylas," he said. "You're very ill." His fingers tightened on my wrist and moved slowly round and round, searching, "Gods, but you're cold. And I can't feel your pulse." He switched his grip from my hand to my face. His palms squeezed my cheeks between them. In the dim light he looked pale, his eyes intense and alarmed. "You're dying, do you understand that? And there is nothing I can do for you. All my medical knowledge, all my herbs have been to naught. All I can think is you were given a poison I don't know. Tell me Hylas, tell me what you did, what you ate, what you drank." The tone of his voice became sharp and brutal, "Or die. It's that simple."

"I drank wine," I said. My head pulsed with pain. Something in me writhed and hungered at the scent of life coming from him, at the warmth of his hands on my face, at the guessed taste of his blood. "Someone bought me wine. A man."

He nodded, unmoved. "Do you know this man? Was he anyone you've seen before? Anyone you knew from Rome? Anyone who might have something against me and have taken his revenge on you?"

His hands were warm and appetizing, the way warm bread is appetizing when you're famished and cold. My head pounded more intensely. The nameless animal in me sniffed and lurked scenting prey. "I didn't know him," I said. "He was tall and pale, and blue eyed. He told me stories, said he was born before Rome, before ... before, he said, the divine twins were kicked out of the wolf's den."

"What?"

"He said he had been born before the founding of Rome and--"

"You're telling me this man was eight hundred years old?"

"I didn't say that, I said-"

"You said he was born before the founding--"

Did he need to yell? My head would surely split open. "I didn't either," I answered, sullen. "I said he told me he was born before Rome, before the gentes streamed into the seven hills and laid the Sabines to waste. Of course I knew he was lying. I am not that stupid. I met old people in Rome and none of them remembered any of that. Also, he told me," I said, in a whisper now, embarrassed to admit the enticement that had drawn me forth to that lonely field. I knew it was a lie like the rest. "He told me if I allowed him, if I allowed him to... satiate himself on me, he would make me immortal, and I would never age. I would be forever as I am now. Forever as ... as you like me."

Adriano whispered something I could not understand. His hands gripped my face tighter. "What did he do to you?" he asked.

What had he done to me? I could hardly remember. "Not what you think. He just... he just..." What had he done to me? My head pounded, pounded so loudly with the echo of Adriano's heartbeats, the scent of his warm blood, the--

My hand held his right arm in a vise grip and pulled, till his wrist was at my mouth. Urgently, my teeth tore the vein, allowed vital, warm liquid to flow onto my cold, cold, tongue, down my parched throat.

"Mithra's crown!" he said, or some other legionary oath. His left hand held my wrist and pulled his right hand free. Then he backed two steps. His left hand held his right. Drop after drop of red liquid fell from his wrist. He watched me from the shadows of the room. There was surprise in his eyes and the fear of a man confronted with impossibility. "I have heard of such things," he said. "I have heard of them, as I have heard of ghosts and witches and gods. I have heard them all, and believed them all in my moments of weakness, and laughed at all of them in the sunlight... but Hylas, sweet Hylas, what could make you crave living blood?"

I blinked, but could not answer. My eyes were riveted, mesmerized, by the drops falling from his wrist, their odor clear and pungent in the stale air of the room. I moved towards him, towards them. My movements were no longer painful. Those few drops of his blood, of his life, had restored some of my own.

But he evaded me easily, stepped back around the two low sleeping couches, took hold of the dark red curtains behind him and opened them in a quick tearing gesture.

Light burned my eyes, my skin. I was naked and every point of my body exposed to this strangely searing light. Pain, unbearable, stinging pain possessed me. I pulled the covers over myself and crouched, trembling, under them, uncomprehending, uncaring, longing for nothing so much as darkness. Darkness and life, to stanch my thirst.

Adriano's laughter rang joyless and loud. Gently, slowly, he closed the curtain. "So it is true," he said, his voice morose and tired. "It is true. There are such creatures. Lamias... The legends say they're women with serpent bodies. One of my germanic mercenaries told me they can also be corpses, dead but living, needing blood to survive and fearing the life-giving sun. And Hylas, always bloodthirsty, has become one of them," he finished with a sort of ironic gaiety.

Encouraged by darkness and the lack of threat in his voice, I pushed the covers back, sat up uncertainly, reached a hopeful hand for his wrist, just an arm's length away, his wrist from which the merry river of life still ran, unheeded. But he was not to be caught unawares. He stepped back, away from my touch. "No, no you won't, Hylas," he said. "I will not trade my blood for death in life... nor for life in death." His eyes were interested but repulsed. Thus had I seen him, once, examine a scorpion. With his left hand he tightened the open brass bracelet he wore on his right arm, tighter, tighter, tighter, till it would serve as a tourniquet. The flow of blood slowed to a mere trickle, then tiny droplets. "What am I to do with you?" he asked, coldly. "What did you think I would do with you? Give you my enemies as fodder?"

I found my voice. My head still pounded and my throat still felt desiccated but I found a little of my mind, of my humanity, a morsel of my outraged self. I had done this for him, to keep his love that relentless time and growth were plundering away. "I thought..." I said, then stronger, "I thought everything would be as it was... as it always was. I would never change, you wouldn't worry about people saying you are pathic, or--" I stopped as his expression clouded.

"Oh, no," he said and smiled, ironically. "Not pathic, just necrophiliac." Then with sudden force, "I do not share my bed with cold corpses, much less corpses who seek blood to replace a life they have lost."

He stepped back into the shadows. The light of the candle forbore to show his face. "So, what can I do with you? I hear one can kill such monsters as you, Hylas. Light will kill lamias, and water, that sustain normal life. Should I kill you, Hylas?"

I got up. I clasped the covers about me. He couldn't be serious. I had given him my love, such as it was. He had the enjoyment of my body while it pleased him. He could not kill me.

I protested all this in a high whine, but he interrupted me, "No, you're right. I cannot kill you. Even if you are dead already... even if it is the most merciful thing, I can't bring myself to do it." He put the candle down, picked up his cloak from the couch facing mine, threw it haphazardly over his shoulders and said, "I'll be back tomorrow morning. Be gone when I'm back. I'll give instructions for you to be left alone till then." He opened the door, and, framed in the muted light of the central courtyard, the faint light that made my eyes hurt and my skin smart, he turned around and said, "And Hylas, everyone in this house, to the least slave, better be alive and in good health when I return. Or I swear by Mars I'll search you out, drag you from your den and hold you in midday light till you shrivel and die."

He walked out.

I sat on my couch, in pain and anger as I heard voices on the other side of the door and smelled the living blood of the household. It did not occur to me to defy Hadrianus's prohibition. I knew him too well, his prompt and merciless justice.

I found one of my tunics, dressed in it and waited. Now and then, I peeked through the draperies that encased the window. When evening fell, soothing and calm, I climbed out.

In the city, I found plenty to satiate my thirst.

Rich men in search of pleasure found quite something else and were too secure in my embrace by the time they thought of fighting. I learned blood was more than food, life was more than a means of slaking thirst. There was an exquisite pleasure to drinking from the springs of life... something, I suppose, like the contentment of a babe at his mother's breast. Food and sex and ecstasy were mine when my teeth tore open the vein and life left my victim and streamed into me. I spared no one, didn't leave any of my victims the tiny spark of life necessary to turn him into one such as I. I gave them nothing, and took all--their life, their gold, their jewels.

When dawn threatened in the Eastern skies, I rented two rooms in a cheap hostelry, and closed the wooden shutters tightly against the day.

I lived this way for uncounted years. Athens, then as now, was a seaport, where people came and went, enough of a feeding ground, enough of a hunting preserve.

My only joy was to stalk the nightly streets, searching for drunken sailors, lost whores, bohemian citizens. That and to listen for any news of Hadrianus. Hatred, hatred flaming clear and pure, had replaced love. Hatred born of resentment for his coldness that pushed me to my death, for his weakness that allowed my dead body to escape for this life, this quasi life I led.

And when I missed the warmth of the sun, the gentle breeze of daytime on fragrant spring flowers, it wasn't myself that I blamed. Not myself but my erstwhile master and his ways, and the coldness of his heart, the coldness of Rome. Take a boy out of the streets, would he, and show him love and power he'd always been denied, only to throw him out, when his body changed and he turned into the man he couldn't help becoming?

I remembered the smell of his blood, the warmth of it on my tongue, and hungered, and waited.

I heard the news when he became Emperor, after Trajanus's death, and ground my teeth, and bode my time. I would wait, I told myself. I would wait until he became old and decrepit and powerless. Until he was ready to beg for immortality. And then... and then I would deny it, I would laugh as he had laughed, I would give him death--slow unforgiving death.

Then one night, in a tavern, a coin was thrown at me, change for the drink I pretended swallowing while I lingered and heard living men talk of living things, and joke and sing, and discuss women and boys and the happiness of daily life.

The golden coin was small, bright, freshly minted. And from it Hadrianus's face smiled at me. Older than I had known him yet unmistakably Hadrianus. I turned the coin over. On the other side, an exquisitely beautiful profile greeted me. A boy, or a woman, with a high bridged nose, delicately drawn features, and a coiffure of elaborate curls pulled up and away from the face. I stared at it, uncomprehending. It looked like me. So much like me. And yet...

"The Emperor's boy," the tavern keeper told me, brightly.

"His son?" I asked, confused, scared. Not his son, no certainly not his son. A son would be a chance for immortality, a way for him to evade the fate I planned.

The man laughed, a short, significant laughter. "Oh, no, not his son. His friend, his companion.

"He is a Bithynian," the man said, taking my stare for a question. "His name is Antinous. His ancestors, the founders of his city, were from Athens. So we honor him. That, and he is the most beautiful-- but there, you can see him for yourself, tonight at the festivals of Dionysus, at the forum."

I did see him. I wish I hadn't. Antinous. Antinous of the dark, dark midnight curls, the white skin, the violet blue eyes, the pomegranate lips. In the middle of the crowd, near the Emperor. The Emperor who had aged and gained weight, but looked contented as I'd never known him. The Emperor who hung suspended from each of the boy's words and cared not if the boy's pronunciation of Greek was faulty and provincial.

Antinous. I hated and I loved him. All in the same instant, the same consuming moment. He was so much like myself, and yet as I had never been. Twin threads, the blind fates had spun for us, and mine had got dirty and frayed, and his remained free, clean, untouched.

I lingered at the edges of the crowd, with the anonymous peasants. I ignored the free food and wine distributed. And I listened to the talk around me, for anything that might pertain to this dark haired beauty who had replaced me.

He was from Bithynium, as the tavern keeper had told me. From Bithynium and fourteen, some said twelve. He looked closer to fourteen, but it was hard to tell. Maybe he, himself, didn't know. And some said he was a slave, and some that he was free, and some that he had lost his family in the earthquake three years ago, and some that his parents had willingly given him to Hadrianus for a suitable fee.

Whatever he was, whoever he was, his quiet grace entranced. And when, after many jugs of wine, instruments were brought out for music, he played the flute in pure, clean notes. And when, still later, poetry demanded he sang his own poems, of fields and sun and flowers and rivers, in perfect rhythm and images clear that made me want to see it all again and brought bitter salty tears to my eyes for the first time since my death. And when night threatened to slip into dawn and I should long since have immured myself in my darkened lodging, I remained, hypnotized by the dancing that had begun and by Antinous's body, vigorous and lively and graceful, oh so painfully graceful.

Once, in the flowing movements of the mad dance, he brushed by the circle of spectators to the imperial feast. He passed a scant hand's breadth away from me and I could smell him, I could almost taste him: sweat and blood, cinnamon and mint, dark hair falling down his back, heavy and fragrant, like the night that sheltered and hid me.

It was only the first light of dawn, painful on my eyes and skin, that drove me to my lair.

The following night I took my treasure, the money and jewels I had collected from my victims over countless years, and settled accounts. I found out where the Emperor and Antinous were going next and followed them. To Sicily, I followed them, where they scaled Mount tna to watch the sunrise, the sunrise that was anathema to me. Then I followed them to Rome and then back out again, to Africa and Greece and then to the far eastern frontiers, and everywhere where there was an outpost of the legion. And everywhere they were welcomed and feasted and enjoyed themselves and each other, ignorant of my presence so near, oh, so near them.

One year, two, three, I followed them. I saw the shadow creep over them. The same shadow that had fallen on me years before. Antinous's voice deepened and his shoulders broadened, and yet... and yet Hadrianus's love for him faltered not. He was faithful, faithful as I'd never thought possible. No whores, no stray boys, not even the Empress whose expression soured more and more each passing year. Unmindful of people's tongues and reproaches, their love continued. And I followed them. For this I braved dawn and twilight, covered myself tightly with a cloak and kept out of the sun only at the noonday hour. Four years, five, six, seven. I followed them along the northern coast of Africa, towards Alexandria. And when they hunted together I tracked them, as they their prey; and when they feasted, I watched the dance and listened to the music; and when, on horseback, they eluded their escort and stole forbidden hours for love amid native forests, I was there hiding, crouching, peering out from the underbrush, burning with jealousy for their love and with hatred for Antinous's beauty and Hadrianus's power, burning with love for their life and their warmth and Antinous's shining clarity.

Here and there, cracks opened between them and I hoped, I hoped that darkness would creep in. Eagerly I heard them argue, headily I drank in the injuries traded, the insults implied. Hungrily, I absorbed the servants' gossip about Hadrianus's bringing a courtesan into their bed Antinous's refusing her and the bitter argument that followed, with Hadrianus explaining to Antinous that he was growing, that he was changing, that all things must end. Expectantly, I saw Antinous come away from encampments, palaces and villas, in the darkness of night, and brood alone after quarrels. Pleasurably, painfully, I saw his eyes cloud with the despair I knew so well. And I was close by that day in Africa when the boy charged foolishly and then paused before the open throat of a cornered lion. If it weren't for Hadrianus's lance, deftly thrown, Antinous's life would have ended then.

My mind clouded by love and hatred and jealousy, I conceived my plan. I would wait. I would wait until the boy begged for death, and I would offer him that, and life everlasting. And then he would be mine. Mine forever, companion of my dark hours. And Hadrianus? Hadrianus would either be tormented with the knowledge of what this, his dearest dear, had become, or he too would beg me for life in death, or death in life.

I would win, I would be avenged. And I would have him. The coveted favorite of the ruler of half a world.

This plan took me after them to Alexandria where they rested for two months, and then to the banks of the Nile, where they planned a cruise upriver. It was the season of floods, a time when only Hadrianus, old and gray but impetuous still, would brave the ancient river. The oracles at departure foretold the river would claim a life from the party. This deterred them not.

I followed the barge from the banks. In full possession of my powers, I could run like no human ever had. I could be near them and watch torches and lanterns nightly transform the immense pleasure boat into a lighted feast; I could listen to songs and poems, the dances and the laughter, the musical laughter of Antinous.

I became obsessed, mindless. I longed for nothing but that spicy blood I had once smelled so near, for that touch of mint, that hint of cinnamon, that life so strong in his perfect body.

I forgot to feed. For nights on end, I forgot to feed, until I was nothing but thirst. Until thirst twisted my body, shriveled my throat. Until my body was heavy and dead and painful.

Then one night I saw the boy leave the barge. Alone and unattended, if you can believe it. He slipped off by himself long after a party where wine had flowed freely and lulled servants and retainers into dreamless sleep. He took one of the small boats and rowed ashore, then walked along the river, head down, hands at his belt, pensive. His hair fell, a soft, unruly mass down his shoulders. His tunic of fine silk thread moved in the night breeze, now delineating his body, now veiling it. His feet were laced into sturdy, thick-soled sandals. He carried no cloak.

I followed him. His steps took him to a small riverside shrine to Osiris. Ever pious, even to foreign divinities, Antinous knelt before the stone altar with its painted wood statue and bent his head in prayer.

I stepped out from behind the bushes that had hid me and greeted him, as a passerby might greet him, in the Greek I had learned in Athens.

He looked up, smiled, returned the greeting, surprised at finding a fellow countryman in this foreign land.

I told him I was in Egypt to study religion. He told me his friend, too, had come here in search of religion, of answers about death from these people who had so long been in love with it. I inquired after his friend and he smiled, a rueful smile that told me what I need not ask. Even if I didn't see a cooling to their love, he felt it cooling or imagined it so.

I told him the same tales that had lured me, oh so long ago. I promised him a changeless body, with never-fading, hairless skin, smooth enough to keep his lover's interest forever. I told him I, myself, was well over thirty now. I assured him of eternal life.

But he smiled and shook his head. Not, understand, that he didn't believe me, but--alas--he was not a boy from the Suburra but a Greek from the Eastern colonies, half in love with the idea of a tragic destiny, of a fate he couldn't avoid. And besides, surely this miracle would have a price. Too high a price for one who didn't own himself.

I told him the price and he recoiled, mistrusting. Hadrianus had told him of my death or my life, as you please. He didn't want it, he told me. Not at the expense of human life. Not if he would have to kill daily just to keep mere animation. He had seen mummies, he told me. Mockery of life, he called them. He would not become a living mummy.

He was strong, muscular, from hunting and riding and keeping up with Hadrianus's restless wandering. But I was hungry, I was starving, I was a beast howling in the wilderness, and we were alone and the night was deep and the sleeping people in the boat would not be roused by his screams.

I held him fast on Osiris' altar. Osiris who was dead and resurrected, a god like myself, in my image and semblance. I held him and pulled back his dark hair and tore at the white skin beneath with impatient teeth. His life, sweet and inebriating, poured out onto my tongue. Sweeter than honeyed wine, stronger than the best spirits, spicy and warm and fine. Worth waiting for one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight years.

His eyes opened wide, terrified, his heart beat fast, fast, fast. His muscles twisted in futile protest, under my arm that pinned him to the altar.

His heart pounded more ardently than any music he ever played, than any dance to which he'd ever given himself. From now on, I thought, his blood on my tongue making me drunk, from now on he would dance for me in the clearings of the night, by the light of the moon. For me, for me alone.

Night stretched and shrunk. I knew the true meaning of euphoria. Drinking Antinous's life I no longer regretted anything, not my lost childhood, not my squandered fate. For that brief moment I was omnipotent, the lord of the world, the equal of gods.

"Antinous." This call, so gentle it was no more than a faint, surprised remark, startled us both long enough for the boy to fight free of me. He stood, uncertain, drawing breath in painful gasps.

I turned, my lips stained with his blood.

Adriano stood by in the moonlight, barefoot on the muddy river bank. Imprudently alone, thoughtlessly unguarded, wearing a short tunic that wasn't as becoming as it once had been. This way, awakened in the middle of the night, with none of his regalia, none of his insignias of power, without the subtle artifice of his hairdresser, he looked very little like an Emperor or even the virile hero I had loved. He had grown fat, with a protruding stomach; his red hair and beard had turned gray and his eyes were circled by small wrinkles and underlined by loose flesh folds, from too much drinking and living and loving.

"Antinous," he said again, concerned, surprised. He looked at me, a brief glance, and then back at his favorite. "I woke up and you weren't there. I saw the rowboat by the shore. I took one myself and I came to see-"

"You came too late!" I said. My voice was mad with triumph. Antinous's blood filled me with an intoxicating happiness. "You came too late. Now he can only live by becoming like me. And you're not a necrophiliac, you're not a necrophiliac, remember?"

Adriano's eyes didn't stray. They stared at the boy and filled with pain, slowly, slowly. And each drop was indefinable sweetness in my mouth, singing joy in my heart. "Child!" the Emperor said, in soft chiding. "Antinous."

"I didn't want it," the boy said, torpidly, painfully, through lips already growing stiff with death, with the poison of undying death I had put in his body. "I don't want it."

They stood there, I don't know how long. They stared at each other as lovers separated by an abyss.

"Antinous..." Adriano said.

"Only sun and water, I remember you told me," the boy whispered. "Only sun and water... Not age, not time... now I shall never change..." And he stared at the Emperor with hopeful eyes.

But all the Emperor said was, "Antinous," again, in that even, tender whisper, as one who reproaches a child for a minor folly.

That was the moment of my triumph, the sweet moment of my triumph, when I knew I had won and the boy was mine and Adriano would beg me--

Then, abruptly, Antinous moved with a light quickness that should have been impossible to him, stepped closer to the torrential, rain swollen river. "A sacrifice," he said. And smiled impishly. "A sacrifice for your Imperial health, your Imperial life." For a moment, he lingered on the side of the river, then laughed, "May you live long, may your life be lengthened by the years that should have been mine."

"Antinous!" Adriano screamed, but did not move.

In my memory now it all happens in the slow motion of the cheap horror movies that would, centuries later, occupy my sleepless days: Antinous's jumping, his body hitting the water, his attempts at swimming, instinct against will. Each of these unnaturally prolonged, centuries in passing.

But I had drained him of life and strength and he could not have saved himself, even if he so wished. Slowly, slowly, he went under, was dragged under, until only his hair floated at the surface, seemingly for an eternity.

"I would accept him, even now," Adriano said, evenly, calmly in the tone of one who trades a greeting with a stranger at the baths.

I looked up at him. His gaze was on the river where nothing remained to be seen, nothing other than the dark waters that had swallowed his lover's body. His eyes were empty, vacant, equanimous.

Later, in the eight years he survived his lover, grief would come to him, scalding grief, and he would weep publicly like a woman, and he would build temples and monuments and force the senate to divinise this anonymous boy, and dot the empire with statues of this Bithynian and start a religion in Antinous's name.

Alas, I found no enjoyment in his delayed pain. Nor was his grief the mourning of a man, but the mere death baying of senseless beast. As my soul remained, pinned to my dead body, his soul had left his living body and followed his lover's somewhere--maybe Olympus. Somewhere beyond my reach.

And it was with cold, dreary detachment that he would write in his diary, "Antinous fell in the river and drowned."

I always think of that sentence, so unlike Adriano, as I see in my mind that last second when Antinous's hair opened and spread like a nocturnal flower blooming by the light of the moon on the waters of the Nile.

The moment I lost them both.

posted by Sarah on 05.01.11 at 10:48 AM










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