By Euphonius (aka Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer
Disclaimer: With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Universal Studios, MCA, or Pacific Renaissance Productions. Yes, I'm using them without permission, but I'm writing this for love, not for money, so I trust no one will get uptight about it.
When I heard the knock on the door, I almost jumped out of my skin. I wasn't expecting visitors, so I figured for sure it was some of Krathes' goons coming to get me.
"I'll answer it, Ysabel," I called to my housekeeper, wanting to keep her clear of any possible trouble.
I stood behind the door for just a second, my fingers on the latch, trying to calm the pounding of my heart. Cautiously, I opened the door. And breathed a sigh of relief and joy.
Iolaus stood on my doorstep, dressed much as I had seen him last, except that his hair was cut a bit shorter and his tunic seemed to have lost its sleeves, not to mention most of its tassels and pom-poms. The gold tights had been replaced with brown leather trousers, and he had ditched the stupid-looking pointy shoes. Overall, it was a big improvement, despite his being somewhat dusty and travel-worn.
"Hi, Euphonius," he said, smiling tentatively, as if unsure of his welcome.
"Hi, yourself," I managed to reply. "Come on in. Glad to see you."
"You didn't look very glad," he remarked.
"That's because I thought you were going to be someone else. You're always welcome here. You should know that." I took his duffel bag and stowed it in a handy corner. "What brings you to my neck of the woods?"
"Well, last time we met, you told me I should come by if I ever wanted to visit with my - I mean, Erytheia. Remember?"
"Yeah, I remember."
We stood looking at each other for an awkward moment. I knew what that one night we'd spent by the river together had meant to me. What I didn't know was what, if anything, it had meant to him.
He smiled a little again. I held out my arms. With only a moment's hesitation, he stepped forward and we embraced.
"Gods, it's good to see you!" I exclaimed. Then I realized Ysabel was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, along with her young daughter. I broke off the hug and turned in their direction.
"Ysabel, this is Iolaus. Iolaus, Ysabel, my housekeeper. And that's Daria hiding behind the door. We usually call her Dari, for short."
As they exchanged the customary pleasantries, Daria came out of hiding. She was a bit shy, just getting to that awkward age where a girl isn't quite ready to start becoming a woman, but she isn't just a child anymore either. In other words, Daria would be eleven years old later this month.
She studied my guest for a long moment before asking shyly, "Are you the Iolaus?"
I winced when I saw the look on his face, but there was nothing I could say at that point to make it right.
"No, dear, I'm afraid not," he replied. "I'm not the one who was with Hercules all his life. I'm just -"
She cut him off impatiently. "No, I don't mean that other Iolaus. I mean the one who fought the monster with Uncle Euphonius a couple of months ago."
"Uh - yes," he stammered, his face lighting up with surprised joy, "I guess I am that Iolaus."
"Wow!" she said. "Awesome!"
"Well, I'd hardly call it awesome," he pointed out, a rueful smile on his face. "We came very close to being killed."
"Yeah, but you weren't. Will you show me that fire-starting thingie Uncle Euphonius told me about?"
Iolaus looked at me, as if to ask my permission. I shrugged. "Why not?"
He dug through his duffel bag and pulled out the small metal jug with the wheel on top. When he lit the flame, Ysabel jumped back in surprise, then went over to investigate. Mumbling something about it being a real handy gadget, she dragged him into the kitchen to see how well it would do at starting a fire in her stove. By the time I got Iolaus out of her clutches, every candle and oil lamp in the kitchen was blazing away, in addition to the stove, and Ysabel had extracted a promise from him to make one of those spark jugs for her. Daria, meanwhile, wanted to know exactly how he had used it to burn the tentacles of the monster that had attacked us.
Watching Iolaus' demonstration, I wondered what the original Iolaus would have thought of this charming little man. Lately, I had taken to "talking" to that other Iolaus in my mind. I hadn't known him for very long, but he had had a significant impact on my life nevertheless, and I missed him dreadfully. I didn't really think he could hear me, of course, even though some people claim the dead can hear our thoughts if we're thinking about them. But it felt less as if he was truly gone if I could talk to him now and then, even if only in my imagination. I could picture him watching this Iolaus, enthusiastically describing our battle with the river monster. I almost thought I could see the way he would smile over this strange version of himself.
So what do you think? I asked the imaginary watcher. He's not you, but he's a pretty nice guy, especially considering his history with the Sovereign. He could've turned out one heck of a lot worse.
Of course, I got no answer to my question. I never really expected one. Meanwhile, this Iolaus had finished his story about our adventure. It sounded much more exciting, and far less painful, than it had seemed when it was actually happening. But I guess that's the way it is with stories.
"Uh, Dari, it wasn't all my doing, you know," Iolaus pointed out to the admiring little girl. "Your uncle did as much damage with his knife as I did with the flame. Maybe more."
"I know. But I've seen him throw his knife. I've never seen anything like this burning thing."
Ysabel interrupted her daughter's enthusiasm. "That's enough now. Come and help me get some refreshments ready for our guest."
"Oh, all right."
When the two of them had gone into the other room, I motioned Iolaus to a chair, then sat down myself.
"That's quite a cute little niece you've got there," he said.
"I'm afraid she's not really my niece, just Ysabel's daughter. She calls me uncle because she has to call me something. But she's a good child and I'm quite fond of her."
With a glance at the outside door, he changed the subject abruptly. "So who was it you didn't want to find on your doorstep?"
"You sure you want to know? It's not really your problem."
"I know. But I'd still like to hear about it."
"Well, okay. It's like this." I settled back in my chair and propped my feet on a stool. "That last buying trip I was on, -- when I ran into you, remember? -- took quite a lot longer than I had planned. Almost three months, as a matter of fact. When I got home, things had changed here in the village. The richest man in Lydicea, Nicander, had died and his son, Krathes, had taken over his estate. Krathes was always pretty obnoxious. I'm sure you know the kind: a spoiled brat that grew into a selfish young man. Ordinarily, this wouldn't matter much, but Nicander owned the vineyards outside town, not to mention most of the land around here. The old man was a fair and generous employer, and a kind landlord to the peasants farming his land. Krathes, on the other hand, is interested only in how much money he can wring out of them. That being the case, do I really need to spell it out for you? Those people who could leave, did. The rest are stuck, some working in the vineyards for low wages and others paying exorbitant amounts of rent on their farms, barely able to make ends meet."
Iolaus nodded, his lips tightening. "That was pretty much standard operating procedure, in the place I came from."
"Well, it's not all that usual here. I saw how things were going, but it didn't seem as if it involved me. After all, the vineyards aren't my business. What Krathes does with his own property is his concern. Or so I thought, until it got worse. He wasn't content with just being the richest and most influential man in the village. There were a couple of protests, people who couldn't pay their rent refusing to leave, that sort of thing. So Krathes brought in some hired thugs. Now, anyone who complains is likely to get hurt, if not thrown in prison. So far, no one's actually been killed, but I'm sure it will come to that eventually."
"You were expecting them to come after you?" When I nodded, he went on, "Why? What did you do?"
"Nothing really. I tried to talk sense to Krathes, one businessman to another. I tried to tell him he'd get more work from his employees if he treated them better. You know, use a carrot instead of a stick."
"And he didn't want to hear it. He told me to mind my own business, or I'd find myself without any business to mind. I lost my temper and let my tongue run rough-shod over my brains, as I'm wont to do. He called in a couple of his goons, roughed me up a little, and had me thrown out in the street, warning me to keep quiet or I'd be sorry."
"I take it you haven't kept quiet?"
"Well, I haven't exactly fomented a revolution," I replied uncomfortably. As a matter of fact, that little run-in with Krathes had shaken my confidence badly. The bruises had healed; the fear hadn't. But I didn't really want to say that to Iolaus, so I tried to put my actions in the best light possible. "All I've done is spoken to a few of the other relatively well-off folks around town, trying to get some idea where their sympathies lie." I smiled ruefully, knowing I could have - should have - done a lot more. "Discretion isn't my strong point, I'm afraid. I think Krathes may have gotten wind of it."
Ysabel came in with a tray of sweets, cutting short our discussion. Daria brought us each a mug of ale, smiling shyly at Iolaus as she served him.
Iolaus inspected the delicate little cakes and the pastries dripping with honey and pistachios. "These look lovely," he said. Ysabel beamed.
"They taste as good as they look," I put in, helping myself to one.
Iolaus did the same, taking a bite and savoring the flavor. "They certainly do," he concurred heartily. "Ysabel, you must tell me how you made this. I've never tasted anything quite like it."
That elicited a detailed description from Ysabel of her recipe, which turned into a discussion of the finer points of baking. They were still at it by the time I had eaten my fill. Cooking interests me about as much as mucking out the stables. I began to squirm with boredom.
"Uh - Iolaus," I finally said, "didn't you want to visit Erytheia?"
"Oh yeah. Right. Shall we go?"
"You're pretty dusty. Wouldn't you like a chance to clean up a little first?" I suggested. "And I could use a change of clothes, if we're going into town. How about you?"
"I don't have anything else to wear, much less anything clean," he said with an apologetic grin.
"No problem. You're about my size, and I have plenty of stuff. Come on with me."
I took him into my dressing room and waved at the rather lengthy rack of clothes. "Pick out something that suits you. Ysabel will have some water heated up soon."
Iolaus looked over my ample wardrobe with surprise. He seemed to have some knowledge of really good fabric, since he fingered some of the better materials appreciatively. "I've never seen you wearing anything like this," he said at last.
"Oh, I never dress fancy when I'm on the road," I replied as I tried to decide what to wear myself. "Too dangerous. Makes me look too rich."
Picking out a long tunic and pants in muted shades of brown to match my hair, I wandered over to the table where I kept my jewelry boxes, carefully considering what would go best with the outfit I had chosen. "I also don't wear any jewelry when I'm travelling, except for a piece or two of fake stuff, as a decoy for thieves. They take what they can see, plus the few dinars I keep in my pouch, and don't look real close for anything else."
"Thanks," I replied absently, as I sorted through one of the boxes. I'm small and rather on the scrawny side, never having had the sort of body that puts on muscle easily. And, if the truth be told, I've never had the inclination to spend hours doing the sweaty exercises necessary to build muscle, nor do I intend to start doing so now, at my age. I'll leave that particular form of masochism to the young dudes. (Okay, so in other words, I'm lazy. Satisfied?)
"The way I figure it," I continued, "if you don't have muscles, you've got to have brains. Right?"
He seemed to be having a problem deciding what he wanted to wear, so I remarked casually, "I think the light blue one on the end would look good on you."
He took it off the rack. "Really?"
I held the jewelry box out to him. "Here. Want to borrow a ring? Or a chain or something? Take your choice."
"Oh, I couldn't."
I shrugged. "Why not? It's not like I don't have plenty of them. I'm a jewelry merchant, remember?" Of course, I used to have a lot more of the expensive types of gems, before I got involved with Dahok and sold them to finance his new religion. But I wasn't going to mention that to Iolaus. After all, it wasn't his fault that he looked the same as Dahok had, when that son-of-a-bitch wrapped me around his little finger and took me for whatever he could get. (Okay, so perhaps it wasn't exactly his finger that he had had me wrapped around, but rather another part of his anatomy.) But all that was in the past.
I picked up a pale blue moonstone ring. "Here. This will look good with that outfit. It fits my middle finger, so it might work for you as a pinky ring." I fluttered him an elaborate gesture with one hand. "My fingers are somewhat thinner than yours, see?"
Laughing, he tried on the ring. It fit, just as I had figured.
For myself, I chose a cameo ring carved from tiger-eye, plus a somewhat gaudy golden topaz pendant. Nothing too expensive. As I draped the chain of the pendant over my head, I said, "I don't get to wear my jewelry much around here. Only on special occasions." I grinned at him and leered comically. "You're a special occasion, gorgeous."
He laughed and shook his head. "Be serious."
"You don't think I'm serious?" I replied, smiling archly. "Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
He laughed again. Gods, did he truly not realize how beautiful he was?
As he unbuttoned his tunic and took it off, I guess the expression on my face must have shown pretty clearly what I was thinking. Or maybe it was the interest that another part of me was starting to show in him that caught his attention.
"Uh - Euphonius?" he began hesitantly. "There's - something I have to tell you."
Uh-oh. That particular phrase rarely means it's something good. At that moment, I'd have laid odds that he and Hercules had gotten together and he wasn't interested in screwing around with me anymore. My heart sank.
"What is it?" I asked, already mentally bracing myself against whatever he was about to say.
That's when Ysabel rapped quickly on the door and came bustling in with a couple of jugs of hot water, followed by Daria carrying an armload of towels.
Iolaus and I exchanged looks as she poured some of the water in the basin in the washstand, then proceeded to fuss with laying out the towels for us.
"Sometimes," I said very softly, "her timing leaves a lot to be desired." I shrugged. "Whatever it is, we can talk about it later on. Okay?"
He nodded. "Maybe that would be better. I'm - I'm actually kind of nervous right now anyway, about meeting Erytheia."
"Later then," I agreed. "Come on. Let's get washed up before that water gets cold."
He hadn't been kidding about being worried over Erytheia. I could see the way he moved as we walked into the village, and his face looked as if he were trying hard not to throw up. His nerves must have been tied in knots.
"Look, you don't have to do this, you know," I suggested, as we rounded a corner.
"I want to," was the tight-lipped response.
"Okay then. That's their house right over there. Let me go first."
He nodded, still looking as if he might vomit any time now. Or worse, faint dead away.
I stepped up on the porch and knocked on the door, almost hoping she wasn't at home.
No such luck. Erytheia quickly appeared in the doorway. "Oh, hello, Euphonius," she said, with her usual warm smile. "How nice to see you! Do come in."
"Erytheia, there's someone out here who'd like to meet you. Remember I told you about --"
I didn't get any further before she had bustled past me and was out on the porch, staring at my companion.
"Iolaus?" she said disbelievingly.
He nodded and went a shade paler. "That's my name, but I'm not -"
"I know, dear. Euphonius explained it all to me." Her voice quavered a little.
He started to turn away. "Maybe I shouldn't have come."
"Oh no, no! I'm very happy to see you." Erytheia took his arm. "It's - well, it's just a bit of a shock, that's all. Please, come inside, both of you. Pandion's in the village getting a few things for me, but he'll be back soon. We've talked about you. I've been hoping you'd come by."
He smiled that bright smile then, but I could see the tears shining in his eyes. "Really?"
Erytheia's only response was to wrap her arms around him and draw him into an embrace, which he returned immediately. They both started to cry. (Okay, so I started to cry also. What else did you expect? Was I supposed to just stand there?)
Everything went great after that, until Erytheia's husband came home. Even then, it wasn't his fault. It was the three men who arrived at the door practically on his heels.
"Are you Pandion, the poet?" the nastiest-looking one of them demanded, not even bothering to ask permission before barging into the house.
"I am," the older man replied with dignity.
"Come with us."
"Wait a minute. Where are you taking him?" I stepped forward so as to block their way.
The lead goon favored me with a glare. "He's under arrest for sedition."
"Sedition?! That's ridiculous! What did he do?"
"That's none of your business. Don't worry, he'll get a fair trial."
Iolaus came over by my side. "Somehow, I doubt that," he said.
"And just who are you?"
I pulled Iolaus back behind me.
"He's my guest. No one you need concern yourself about."
The lead goon looked me over more closely. "Aren't you that jewelry merchant, Eunonymous?"
"Euphonius," I corrected him brusquely. "Yeah, that's me. And I still want to know what Pandion did to deserve this."
The poet took a small scroll out of his pocket and handed it to me. "I think this will explain things pretty well," he said.
Puzzled, I unrolled the scroll and read it through, with Iolaus looking over my shoulder.
"The Song of the Grape"*
With fingertips weary and torn,
And naught in her stomach but rhymes,
A young woman stands, dressed only in rags,
Reaching among the vines.
"Pick - pick - pick!" she
"While the cock is crowing aloof;
And pick - pick - pick
Till the stars shine through the roof!
"Work - work - work," she
"Till my brain begins to swim;
Work - work - work
Till my eyes are heavy and dim!
"Pick - pick - pick!" she
"My labor never flags;
And what are its wages?
A bed of straw, A crust of bread - and rags.
"Work -work-work!" she
"From weary chime to chime,
Work - work - work
As prisoners work for crime!
"Oh, men with sisters dear!
Oh, men with mothers and wives!
It is not wine you're drinking here,
But human creatures' lives!"
She brushes off a weary tear
And tries hard not to weep.
O Gods! That bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap!
I was frankly surprised at Pandion's daring to write such a thing. It was a far cry from the sophisticated sort of verse he generally produced. This would appeal to the common folk - and I could easily see why it did not appeal to Krathes. However -
"This is hardly what I would call sedition," I objected. "It's poetry. There's nothing illegal about writing poetry."
"What do I care what you would call it? Krathes runs things in this town and he says bring this guy in. Now suppose you just step aside and let us do our job, okay?"
I didn't move. The fear was creeping into my heart now, but I was ashamed to back down in front of everyone.
"I'm warning you, merchant," the goon went on, glowering at me. "Keep out of this, unless you want to go to jail for obstructing justice."
"Some justice," Iolaus put in sourly, still behind me.
"Stay out of this," I said to him in an undertone.
"Euphonius -" he started to object.
"Please. This isn't your concern." I turned back to the thug. "I'm not moving. Take your friends and get out of here."
"Okay, you asked for it."
I'm sorry to report that it took very little effort for them to grab me and toss me against the wall. I'm not much good at hand to hand fighting. As I struggled to sit up, Iolaus came over to help me, feeling through my hair for any damage to the back of my head. He touched a place that made me wince and his hand came away sticky with blood, so I figured I'd landed pretty hard. Nevertheless, I was going to try again when Pandion said firmly, "Don't, Euphonius. You'll be of no help to anyone if they throw you in prison too."
In or out of prison, I didn't think I'd be of much help to anyone in any case. However, I did feel bad enough, not to mention scared enough, that I used his remark as an excuse to stay down, even as I berated myself for doing so.
The three goons dragged the poet out the door. Erytheia collapsed onto a chair, burying her face in her hands and sobbing.
Iolaus and I glanced at each other uncomfortably.
"I'm okay. Go to her," I said.
He got up and put an arm around the old woman's shoulders. "It'll be all right," I heard him murmur to her. "Hercules is going to meet me here tomorrow. When he hears what's going on, he'll fix everything. You'll see."
Erytheia let herself be comforted, her tears slowly subsiding. All I felt was shame, and a growing anger that I hadn't been able to stop what had happened, and perhaps hadn't even tried as hard as I could have. Somehow, the idea that our best hope lay in waiting for a do-gooder of a demi-God to arrive did nothing to lessen my resentment. Besides which, this was the first I had heard of Hercules' imminent arrival. So okay, I'm jealous of him. Always have been, ever since I had met the other Iolaus and found out he and Hercules were lovers. I had always figured it was just a matter of time before the bastard son of Zeus and this Iolaus ended up in the same sort of relationship.
The day went downhill from there. Iolaus and Erytheia spent the rest of the afternoon talking, but Pandion's plight hung over their meeting like a pall.
The evening meal back at my house was a disaster. Iolaus was clearly forcing himself to eat and be polite to Ysabel and Daria, and I was mostly silent, still thinking depressing and resentful thoughts about what had happened that day and about what was probably happening between Iolaus and Hercules.
Tactful as always, Ysabel sent her daughter to spend the night at a friend's house soon after the meal was over, then retired to her own suite of rooms in the side wing of the house, leaving Iolaus and me alone on the porch to watch the sun set over the hills. She had unobtrusively supplied us with a bottle of wine before bidding us a good evening.
Ignoring the various chairs, Iolaus sat down with a sigh on the top step of the porch and stared out at the lowering sun. I considered my options, then settled on filling the wineglasses, sitting down next to him, and offering him one.
"Here you go," I prompted, drawing his attention back from the far distance. He still seemed abstracted as he took a swallow of the excellent wine. "Not a really good visit so far, huh?"
"Don't worry. When Hercules gets here, he'll make things right."
"Yeah, I know. That's what you told Erytheia." Not the topic I wanted to discuss. Nevertheless, I couldn't help adding sourly, "But why does it have to be that way?"
He turned to me, looking puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it just seems like it's always 'Hercules, help us!' 'Hercules, do something!'. Why is it always up to him to fix our problems?" I said, perhaps with more heat than I had intended.
"He's half god, for one thing," Iolaus pointed out reasonably. "And he's stronger than anyone else. He's -"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But he's still only one man. Why are all the problems in the world his exclusive responsibility? What about the rest of us? Are we nothing but a pack of craven cowards, unable to deal with things for ourselves?"
Yeah, I guess I got a little angry here, and it probably showed in my voice. But remember, I was pretty sure Iolaus was about to break it to me gently that we were through, because he loved Hercules now. I wasn't in exactly the best frame of mind.
"Euphonius, he's a trained warrior," the other man pointed out. "He knows how to fight. We don't. Or at least, not very well." He hesitated for a moment, as a pained expression crossed his face. "But yeah, I think I know what you mean. It's frustrating sometimes, isn't it?"
"Uh-huh." Almost as frustrating as being here so close to you and not being sure if you want me to get any closer.
"But what else can we do?" he went on. "You and I can't go up against Krathes by ourselves. We'd just end up in prison with Pandion. Or dead."
I sighed. "I know. But still -"
"But still it hurts to have to think of yourself as a wimp, doesn't it?" he finished for me. "Always running to the big guy for help?"
I nodded glumly. The silence lengthened uncomfortably, as we both faced away to watch the dying light in the sky. It hadn't even been a very interesting sunset.
Finally, I decided the time had come to find out just how things stood between us. Draining my glass, I set it down behind me. Then I draped one arm around the other man's shoulder, simultaneously running my other hand up his thigh as I suggested brightly, "Hey, don't we have better things to do right now than sit here thinking of ourselves as wimps?"
He grabbed the hand on his thigh and stopped my upward progress just short of its goal, but he didn't move out of my arms. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
"Okay, so talk. I'm listening."
"I - I met someone."
Not exactly how I'd expect him to begin telling me about Hercules.
"Someone?" I prompted.
"Yeah. Her name's Nautica." An infatuated expression crossed his face, then turned to wistful sorrow as he continued, "She's a mermaid."
"A mermaid?! You're in love with a mermaid?!" I said, almost shouting. Gods, I had been prepared to lose him to another man, but not like this. "You have got to be kidding!"
I had been startled enough by this pronouncement to lean back away from him a bit. I could see the misery on his face, as I watched his profile. His lips clenched together before he spoke, and his words echoed the desolation he was so obviously feeling.
"I almost wish I were, because I just don't know of any way we're going to be able to be together."
With an unhappy sigh, I took my hand off of his leg.
"Okay, tell me all about it. Who is she? How'd you two meet?"
"You really want to know? I mean, you can't be too pleased about this, all things considered."
"Well, it's not what I thought you'd say, and it's certainly not what I wanted to hear you say. I won't lie about that. But, yeah, I do want to know."
It was fairly dark by now, and the first bugs of the evening were starting to come out. I swatted at an intrusive gnat, then stood up and dragged my companion to his feet. "Let's go inside. This sounds like a long story and we need to be more comfortable."
Picking up the winebottle in one hand, I led Iolaus into the darkened house with the other. He followed without objection until he realized we were in my bedroom, then he pulled away from me with a certain amount of consternation on his face. I knew pretty well what he was thinking.
I flopped down on the bed, folded up the pillows to make a decent backrest, and patted the space next to me. "Sit down, relax, and tell me about your lady love," I invited. "That's all."
After only a moment of hesitation, he took me up on the offer, settling cross-legged next to me on the mattress and relating the tale of Triton's daughter, who had fled the ocean to avoid an unwelcome marriage, only to find herself in love on the land with a man she could not have.
I listened, spellbound, even as I cried inside.
It was rather ironic, really. I wanted him more than life itself, and he wanted someone else, just as the other Iolaus had. And not just any old someone else either. Not even just an ordinary woman. Oh no. It had to be something exotic. How in Tartarus do you compete with a mermaid? How do you even try?
Perhaps the very unwelcome answer is that you don't. His heart is given elsewhere. It will never be yours, I told myself sternly.
Iolaus finished the story, his voice shaking uncontrollably as he described taking her back to the ocean and watching her swim away. He fell silent for a moment, wiped his eyes, and took a shaky breath. Then he turned to me and went on, "I don't know how to explain this. It's like when I'm with Nautica, I'm the person I've always wanted to be. I'm not afraid anymore. I care more about her life and well-being than I do for my own. I mean, I went after her, when she'd been captured by Discord's thugs. Me, the clown, the jester, the ultimate wimp! I only knew I had to save her and keep her from harm. I wasn't thinking about what might happen to me. That just didn't seem important at the time. Do you understand what I mean?"
"Yeah. I think so." Every time I look at you, if you really want to know.
He smiled gamely. "Maybe now that I know what it feels like to be brave, I'll be able to do it again, even without her."
"Sure, why not?"
He frowned and turned away.
"Oh, who am I kidding? That was a fluke. It was only because I had to protect her. When she was with me, I felt like a man. Now --" he shrugged helplessly -- "I'm just me again. If I think I can be a hero like Hercules, I'm just fooling myself."
"Look, you don't have to be a hero like Hercules," I pointed out, still trying to get my own runaway feelings under control. "We can't all be heroes like him. He's the son of a god, so it's easy. He's probably got more strength in his left wrist than most men have in their entire bodies. His power and strength is his blessing - or perhaps his curse. He has the choice to use that gift for good, or for evil. The choices he makes are his choices and his responsibility. Ordinary mortals like us have other choices to make. You only have to be yourself, whatever that is."
"But the other Iolaus --"
"Oh, screw the other Iolaus!" I exclaimed impatiently. "You're not him. You don't have to be like him. Case closed. End of sentence. Besides," I added, "I like you the way you are."
"You really mean that?"
Gods, he sounds as if that possibility had never occurred to him!
"Of course I do." By way of showing him just how much I meant it, I kissed him on the lips. I couldn't help it. He was so close, and so fucking beautiful.
Okay, so maybe I had no business coming on to him at that particular moment, but I had this sinking feeling in my heart that he and his lady love just might get together one day, despite the odds. This could very well be my last chance.
He didn't pull away really fast, and when he did, he said softly, "Do you still want me?"
"Do you even have to ask?"
He laughed that strange upscale giggle of his. "No, I guess not. I'm just not too sure about this. I mean, Nautica --"
"Look, it's not like you're married to her," I said, cutting him off. "You're not even engaged or anything. In fact, you don't even know if you'll ever see her again, right?"
He nodded unhappily.
I pressed my advantage. "As of now, you're still free to do whatever you want."
"It just doesn't seem ethical somehow."
"If things do work out between you and your little mermaid, and the time comes when it's good-bye, then it's good-bye. I can respect that and I can deal with it. But that time hasn't come just yet, has it? You still want me."
That last was merely a statement of fact. I could see the evidence of his desire between his legs, and I knew I'd won this debate.
"Yeah, I do," he admitted. "But -"
"But--?" I prompted, pulling him back to lie against me. He didn't resist. In fact, he squirmed rather eagerly into my arms.
"But I'm confused. I love Nautica, yet I still like this. But she's a woman -"
"And I'm a man," I finished for him. "So what's the problem?"
"I just always thought -- I mean --" He ran a hand through his fair hair. "Gods, I don't know what I mean anymore!"
"Iolaus, my dear, even I myself have been known to make love to a woman, on occasion. It's not always just one or the other. There's a whole world in between."
"Yeah, I know. But --"
"No buts," I said firmly, cutting off any further protests by sliding my hand down the soft blue fabric of the borrowed clothing he wore and getting a good hold on his hard cock. He didn't say anything else after that. Not for quite a while.
Now, I've read some drippingly-descriptive but totally unrealistic descriptions of sex where men are hung like stallions and shoot their cum so hard they splatter the walls, while simultaneously bellowing like a herd of wild animals and proclaiming their undying love for each other. Sorry to disappoint you, folks, but it usually doesn't happen quite that way.
Oh yeah, sex can be pretty terrific, and it's still the greatest show on earth, especially if you also care for your partner. But let's have a little realism here, huh? The earth doesn't really move. It just feels as if it does. And it sure felt that way that night, even if we were both just human beings and not super-studs.
But you want to know something? In the final analysis, what mattered most wasn't really who came, or how many times, or how good it felt. The memories I'll keep most dear to my heart will be the other things, like the expression on his face when he was lost in passion, and the feel of his body under my fingers, and the unguarded words of longing and encouragement, and his lips, yielding or demanding against mine.
Oh yes, maybe the other part of it is what fascinates the youngsters, but, delicious as it is, I'm too old for that to be the only reason for wanting someone in my bed.
When we had finally worn each other out, Iolaus fell asleep first. I did the corny old thing you always read about but seldom do in practice: I laid there and watched him sleep.
We were still more or less entwined, since his head had been resting on my shoulder when he'd dozed off. My arm was already numb and tingly, but it was so good to have him next to me that I didn't dare move lest I should disturb him. I still felt this terrible premonition that I'd never hold him again, after tonight. For one thing, Hercules would be here tomorrow. Even if they weren't lovers, his presence would make this sort of thing more difficult. Then there was that thrice-accursed mermaid who had won his heart.
I studied his face with a kind of grim determination, so I'd be sure to remember exactly how he looked after he was gone.
And I couldn't help but remember that other, almost identical face, in the same shadowed moonlight on the one single night we had spent together.
And I felt the anger burning in my heart, and heard again the curse I'd flung at Dahok, as I'd watched the lifeless body lying on the altar.
"I'm still out to get you, you son-of-a-bitch," I whispered almost inaudibly to the night and the Darkness. "If I ever figure out a way to do it, that is."
Even as I lay staring at the man slumbering peacefully beside me, I saw yet another face overlaid on his, a face with glowing red eyes. And I heard the mocking voice say once again, "Zarathustra, have a thousand winters taught you nothing? I'm as much a part of this world as the light that warms the day."
Now, quite a lot of what I had overheard Dahok saying to Hercules during that awful time was actually the truth. Perhaps the real power of evil comes from its ability to intermix truth and lies, until you can't tell one from the other anymore.
In an effort to separate the truth from the lies, I had spent some time on my last trip to Athens looking up Zarathustra's writings in one of the libraries.
His philosophy, to put it very simply, is that there is one God, Ahura Mazda, who created the universe. However, the universe works on the basis of moral dualism. There is the Impulse to Create and the Impulse to Destroy. We are not under orders from Ahura Mazda to follow one course of action or another. Instead, we mortals have been granted the freedom to choose between these two forces. Having chosen, we must then be prepared to face the consequences of our choices. The right choice would bring happiness and bliss; the wrong one only suffering and misery.
I found this to be as reasonable a description of the universe as any other, so I'd been thinking about it quite a lot. I hadn't figured out where the usual collection of gods fit into this scheme of things, but I was working on it.
In my mind, Dahok was a personification of Zarathustra's Impulse to Destroy. If this were true, he wasn't gone, could never be destroyed, but had only been pushed a little further away, as the balance swung forever back and forth between the Light and the Darkness.
When I finally fell asleep, it was only to flounder in a morass of nightmare, where the brooding form of Ultimate Evil hovered eternally over humankind, awaiting only its next opportunity to manifest, while I just stood there, futilely screaming curses against it.
Just as Iolaus had predicted, Hercules arrived in Lydicea the next day. It was mid-morning when he got there, and we were at Erytheia's house, trying to keep her spirits up in the absence of any news of Pandion's situation.
While Iolaus sat talking to the older woman, one arm around her waist, I sat watching him, as surreptitiously as possible. He wore another borrowed outfit, since Ysabel was still busy cleaning and mending his own clothes. This time he had plain brown trousers and a simple pale gold shirt with long full sleeves and an embroidered collar. He'd picked this one out of my wardrobe himself and I had to admit it looked far better on him than it ever had on me.
The first clue we had that Hercules was in town was when he showed up in the doorway, knocking rather tentatively on the frame as he stood peering from the bright outdoor sunshine into the relative obscurity within.
"Iolaus?" he asked, as if uncertain that he'd come to the right place.
Iolaus' face brightened at the sound of his name, and he flashed his smile at Erytheia as if to say, "See? It'll be okay now."
"Yeah, Hercules," he called out. "Over here. Come on in!"
Introductions were quickly made all around. Of course, I already knew who he was, since I'd been a rather unwilling witness to his confrontation with Dahok in Iolaus' body. I didn't think Hercules knew me though, unless he'd caught sight of my face in the crowd somewhere. I suppose some part of me wished he would remember, but a larger part devoutly hoped he wouldn't.
Be that as it may, he did give me a rather strange look as he nodded in acknowledgement of my name and the info that I was the friend Iolaus had told him about who lived in this village.
Iolaus rapidly filled him in on how Pandion had been taken prisoner. I just stayed out of the way and watched, except when Iolaus referred Hercules to me to explain further about the situation in town. Even then I kept my answers as direct and succinct as I could. I just didn't feel comfortable around him, for a variety of reasons. I preferred to fade into the woodwork. I'm good at that.
We had just about gotten Hercules up to speed when Ysabel rushed through the door, red-faced and out of breath.
"Euphonius," she gasped, "they're going to execute him! You've got to do something!"
"Hold on," I told the frantic woman. "Sit down, catch your breath. Who's being executed?"
"Pandion! Krathes is going to have him beheaded! It was just announced in the marketplace. They've got him there now!"
As Erytheia gasped in shock, Hercules leapt to his feet and ran out the door. Iolaus recovered from his surprise faster than the rest of us and was hot on the big man's heels, with the two women and me bringing up the rear.
Ysabel's report had been all too accurate: there was already a black-clad executioner taking a few practice swings with his axe at the wooden block set up in a cleared space in the center of the market. Pandion, his hands tied behind his back, stood between two of Krathes' thugs, doing his best to look dignified and unafraid.
Krathes stood near the executioner's block, arms crossed on his chest, appearing rather pleased with himself as one of his henchmen read the sentence pronounced on the condemned poet.
There was quite a mob of townspeople mixed in with the paid goons at Krathes' back, mostly armed with makeshift weapons of various sorts. Although they stood in close ranks behind their apparent leader, they shifted uncomfortably and didn't really look too happy about the situation . I knew many of these men: if they were following Krathes, they weren't doing it because they particularly liked the idea. He must have threatened them with something.
Hercules stepped up in front of Krathes, while the rest of us were still trying to push our way through the crowd that filled the marketplace.
"I think we've had about enough of this nonsense," he said loudly. "Let him go."
Krathes eyed the newcomer distastefully but without fear. "And just who might you be?" he asked haughtily.
"A friend of the man you propose to kill."
Krathes' narrowed his eyes and examined the demi-god with new interest. "You're Hercules, aren't you? I heard a rumor that you were in the area." He smiled. "Well, you'd do well not to interfere in matters you know nothing about."
"I know this man did nothing more than write a poem you didn't like. Since when is bad poetry a capital offense?"
A couple of people in the crowd dared to laugh. Krathes was not pleased. He gestured to his goons and Pandion was shoved forward onto his knees, his head forced down onto the block.
"You don't listen too well, do you, big man?" Krathes announced loudly. "I told you this is none of your business."
As the executioner lifted his axe, Erytheia screamed out her husband's name.
With a quick bound forward, Hercules caught the upraised axe and jerked it from the other man's hands.
"I'm making it my business," he replied, grabbing Pandion and thrusting the poet behind him.
Iolaus had reached the front of the crowd by now. He took hold of Pandion and started untying his hands. Erytheia and I were there in the next instant, pulling both Pandion and Iolaus back into the safety of the milling crowd.
Krathes, not at all pleased with this development, waved his troops forward. "Kill him!" he shouted, pointing a finger at Hercules.
Rather predictably, a general melee ensued, with Krathes' entire mob of recruited townsfolk making a half-hearted effort to do as commanded, while they were urged on and aided by the relatively few actual warriors in Krathes' employ. Hercules clearly understood the nature of his attackers, as he did his best not to hurt anyone. However, this very consideration made it all the harder for him to defend himself, as he was virtually overwhelmed with bodies and wasn't always certain which of them were truly dangerous opponents.
Krathes stood in a relatively clear space by himself, smugly watching the chaos he had set in progress. He had every right to be smug, since the demi-god was beginning to get the worst of things.
Iolaus stood next to me, watching. When Hercules went down for the second time, covered in thrashing bodies, Iolaus turned to me. "Euphonius? What you said last night, about how it shouldn't always be up to him?"
"Yeah?" I replied, suddenly noticing the frown on his face and the determined set of his lips.
He pulled a pole loose from a nearby merchant's tent and headed straight for Krathes, shouting, "Call them off! Now!"
"Iolaus, no!" I protested. But he ignored me, as I knew he would.
Iolaus got in one good blow with the pole before Krathes realized he was under attack. Then the bigger man drew his sword. Iolaus held him off, dodging, leaping, and just generally managing not to occupy the same bit of space as that sweeping blade, while getting in a surprising number of jabs with his makeshift staff.
It occurred to me that perhaps I should try to help him somehow. And yet I hesitated, torn between fear and guilt, and knowing how totally inept I was at fighting.
Besides, Iolaus was doing fairly well by himself. I was amazed at his courage, not to mention some of the rather goofy stunts he threw in now and then to confuse his opponent.
Then I saw how hard he was breathing and I knew he couldn't possibly keep it up much longer, not against a larger and better-armed opponent. It could only be a matter of time before he'd wear out, or make a fatal mistake.
And still I hesitated, watching him battle overwhelming odds for the sake of justice and his friends' lives.
That's when I heard a voice in my head, a very familiar voice that I had thought never to hear again, or at least not from its original owner.
"Euphonius, this is what it truly means to oppose Dahok. Everywhere and always, stand up against the Impulse to Destroy, in whatever form it takes. Speak what is true and do what is right, regardless of the consequences. You may never win the final victory, but you can take your place on the side of Light, and not Darkness."
That's when I realized what I should have known all along: it really is just that simple. The only way to get back at Dahok is to do whatever you can to stop the spread of darkness and evil in the world, and to further the cause of goodness and light. When you put it like that, it sounds pretty sappy, doesn't it? But that's the bottom line. And you know what? In the final analysis, it just may take more courage than fighting monsters.
Just now though, it was obviously taking all the courage Iolaus had.
I saw the sword slash across his body; a glancing blow, since he'd been twisting away and out of reach as it connected, but it was enough to drop him to the ground, clutching the side of his chest. Beneath his fingers, red blood stained the pale gold shirt. He tried to get to his feet, but his face went dead white and he collapsed limply to the ground again.
Krathes laughed and kicked his fallen opponent cruelly. As he began to raise his sword for a killing blow, time slowed and focussed for me, as it has a way of doing in times of great danger. My first impulse was to shout to Hercules for help, but there was no way the demi-god could reach Iolaus in time, since he was still buried under his own adversaries. I wasn't even sure Hercules had seen his friend's peril.
I was close enough, but I had no weapon that could stop Krathes.
Or did I? Glancing around desperately, my eye fell on one of the merchant's booths, where a number of ornate broadswords lay shining in the noonday light. Useless to me, as I haven't the strength or training to use them. But nestled among the heavy weapons was a narrow-bladed, much lighter sword of a kind I recognized from a long, long time ago. The slender blade was rusted and wanted care, obviously not something most people would consider using. My fingers closed around the hilt before I even thought about it, and the rapier was in my hand.
"Leave him alone, asshole!" I called out, running across the street to confront Krathes where he stood over Iolaus.
The big man turned toward me, a look of surprised pleasure coming over his face. His broadsword swung around to point at me. "I thought you had already learned not to interfere, merchant. Do you need another lesson?"
I tried to meet his eyes without flinching, but inside I was rapidly turning into terrified mush. I'm no swashbuckling hero. Whatever did I think I was doing here?
My hesitation must have shown on my face, because Krathes went on unctuously, "That's what I thought. Now, get out of my way. I'm going to slice this meddlesome little twerp into so many pieces that there won't be enough left of him to bury."
One moment I had been so scared I was about to wet my pants, but then all that changed. Iolaus had fought the Darkness, irregardless of the cost. If he could do it, so could I.
I raised the rapier in front of me. "You touch him only over my cold, dead body," I said slowly, and unoriginally, I fear.
Krathes gave a short laugh and raised his sword. "That can be arranged," he replied, just as unoriginally.
The man might have been big, but he was also clumsy and overconfident. Each time the sword came at me, I ducked or sidestepped, retreating steadily backwards in order to lure him away from Iolaus.
"Stand still and fight, you coward," he bellowed.
I shook my head. "Uh-uh. You come and get me, if you think you can."
I took a few deliberately ineffectual swipes at him with my rapier as I continued to back up.
Krathes laughed loudly. "You call that thing a weapon?" he taunted, as he stepped toward me and swung again, even more violently than before.
"Well, actually -" I began, as the heavy sword came down in a vicious slash that nicked my left shoulder as I dodged aside. I lunged forward and ran my narrow blade straight through his chest, twisting it as hard as I could before wrenching it loose. "-- yes, I do," I finished, as Krathes looked down at the blood spreading across his shirt. He stood there stupidly, as if he couldn't believe what had happened.
The one thing you don't do is stop, just because you got in one good hit. I ran him through the body again, and was aiming a third blow at his throat when his eyes rolled up and he fell backwards into the street. For a moment, I just stared at him, almost as surprised as he had been.
Once I realized I was no longer in danger, I turned my attention back to Iolaus. Erytheia and Ysabel had gone to him as soon as I'd lured Krathes away. Erytheia held his head, while my redoubtable housekeeper pressed the bunched-up pieces of his shirt against the cut on his chest. I started towards them, but Hercules beat me to it. By the time I got close, he was leaning over his friend, anxiously examining the damage.
"Iolaus?" I heard him say softly.
Ysabel was the one to reply, her eyes focussed on her makeshift bandage and the amount of blood leaking through it. "We need to get him back to my house, so I can stitch up that wound."
Hercules nodded, taking hold of Iolaus and lifting him in his arms as easily as another man might lift a child.
This brought the wounded man around. He grimaced then opened his eyes blearily. "Hercules?"
"It's okay, buddy. Just take it easy. You'll be fine."
Iolaus let his head loll against the big man's shoulder with a sigh. Hercules strode swiftly toward my house, following Ysabel's directions. I started after them, but was stopped by a hand on my arm.
"Keep the little sword," said the owner of that hand, smiling broadly. I recognized him as one of the town merchants, obviously the one from whose booth I had grabbed the weapon. He held out a narrow leather scabbard. "It's worth the price, and more, to be rid of Krathes."
"Thanks," I replied distractedly. Truth to be told, I had forgotten I still held the bloody rapier. I wiped the blade on the edge of my tunic, slid it into the scabbard, and ran off after Hercules.
By the time I caught up, they had already gotten to my house. The main room was empty. I saw Daria coming through the archway, carrying a bowl of water.
"Where --?" I started.
"It's okay, Uncle Euphonius. My mother's taking care of him." She nodded back in the direction she had come. "They're in my bedroom." Before I could even start to go around her, she added, "Mother says no one should go in. She's busy. That big man is in there with her."
I felt pretty useless, but at least everything seemed to be under control. Daria eyed me closely.
"Uncle Euphonius," she said sternly, "come over here and sit down."
"So I can fix your shoulder. It's bleeding."
And so it was. Until Daria had brought it to my attention, it hadn't hurt. Now it decided to make up for lost time. I sat down, feeling suddenly light-headed. I didn't even question the fact that it was a child tearing my shirt away from the cut and carefully cleaning the wound with a wet cloth. I just clenched my teeth together and worried about Iolaus. I knew he had to be in much worse shape than I was. I also knew it wasn't much fun to have a sizable gash stitched together, since I had watched Ysabel at work on such things before. Still, I didn't hear any screaming coming from the other room, nor any weeping and wailing which might have indicated that the silence was anything other than a good thing.
"Uncle Euphonius?" Daria interrupted my thoughts as she dropped the wet cloth into the basin and picked up some dry bandages. Without waiting for an acknowledgement from me, she went on, "You really like Iolaus, don't you?"
"Yes, dear. He's a very good friend."
She placed a pad of material over the now-only-slightly-bleeding cut on my shoulder, pressing hard. "He's more than just a friend, isn't he?"
"Uh - Dari --"
"I'm not a baby anymore, Uncle Euphonius. You can tell me the truth."
I looked up at the little girl so expertly tending my wound, and gave her the kind of smile an adult gives a favored child. "I can, huh?"
"Yes," she replied solemnly. "You and Iolaus are lovers, aren't you?"
Gods, had she really grown up so quickly, and I hadn't noticed?!
When I answered her question, my voice had lost its patronizing tone and the smile on my face had changed. "I didn't know it was so obvious."
"It is to me." She lifted the pad, nodding in satisfaction at the lack of fresh blood, just as I had seen her mother do countless times for others.
"Well then," I replied, "I guess you could say that Iolaus and I are good friends, and sometimes lovers, if you wanted to."
"Because I like Iolaus." She picked up more bandages. "Now take off your shirt. I need to wrap this around your chest and over your shoulder in order to get it to hold the dressing in place."
I obeyed my little nurse, still smiling at how grown up she'd become.
Daria had barely finished what she was doing when Ysabel came bustling out of the other room. I jumped immediately to my feet.
"How is he?" I asked.
"Relax. He'll be fine." She handed a basin of very red water to her daughter, saying, "Here. Get rid of this, please."
Without a word, the girl did as she was instructed. Before she had left the room, her mother had taken in the bandage around my chest with a practiced eye. "Good job, Dari," she called. Then she turned back to me. "It took quite a few stitches to close that gash, but it wasn't very deep. It should heal without any problems."
"Okay if I go in now?"
Ysabel almost refused. I saw it in her face. Then her expression softened as she looked at me. "Yes. But be quiet. I gave him some poppy juice, so he may be asleep."
I opened the door very quietly and slipped inside the small room. Hercules sat on the edge of the bed, turned partly away from me. One of his hands was on Iolaus' arm, while the other rested on the sleeping man's forehead, absently brushing back a wave of blond hair. I figured he hadn't heard me come in, since he hadn't turned to see who it was. I didn't speak for a moment, watching the two of them together.
There was something here I didn't quite understand. The naked look of love and longing on the big man's face didn't jibe with the fact that he and this Iolaus weren't actually lovers, as far as I knew. In fact, he had to know about the mermaid who had won his friend's heart. If Iolaus had told me, he had to have told Hercules. So why --?
Come on now, Euphonius, said that voice I had heard just a little while ago in my mind. It isn't that hard to figure out, is it?
All of a sudden, it wasn't hard at all.
He still loves you, doesn't he? I replied to the voice. And he'd like to love that part of you that he sees in this other Iolaus, but he won't, because he knows this Iolaus doesn't feel that way about him, and he's just too nice a guy to force the issue? Am I right?
You got it, was the reply. It managed to sound somehow less than happy.
I was less than happy about that particular moment of insight myself. I would have preferred to continue resenting Hercules, rather than respecting him for his restraint and caring, not to mention empathizing with his love.
I shuffled my feet and deliberately pushed against the door, trying to sound as if I'd just come into the room. Hercules looked around.
"How's he doing?" I asked softly.
"Good. Sleeping." The big man looked a little closer at me, a slight frown creasing his forehead below the fringe of hair hanging into his face. "I saw you fighting with Krathes. Where'd you learn to use a little sword like that?"
I perched carefully at the foot of the bed, lifting the sheathed rapier I still held clutched in my right hand so that it rested across my lap. When this was all over, I'd have to clean it up good and see if I could restore it to its original condition.
"Well," I began, "there was this young prince I met, many years ago. He was quite a womanizer and drank way too much for his own good, but I saw him practicing with a sword like this when I was at court selling some jewelry to his father. It was one of my first big sales, if I remember correctly. I didn't have the strength to handle a broadsword, but this sort of thing --" I raised the rapier slightly - "looked like something I could manage, so I asked him to show me how he did it. He was more than glad to find someone else interested in his rather impractical weapon, so I stayed a few weeks and learned how it worked. Come to think of it, he was about Iolaus' height and looked a little bit like him, except he was skinnier and wore his hair much shorter. But that was a long time ago and we were both quite young."
I smiled to myself, thinking of the other activities the young man and I had enjoyed in addition to our weapons practice.
Hercules smiled also. "I think I just might know who that prince was, although I never met him personally."
I was about to ask for more details when Ysabel ducked into the room to check on her patient. Satisfied that he was doing fine, she shooed me out. I knew better than to argue with my redoubtable housekeeper, so I never did get the chance to ask Hercules more about Orestes.
There isn't much to tell after that. With Krathes dead and no other living relatives to be found, all the property went to the tenants, due to a previously-unknown arrangement Nicander had made prior to his own death. When that news was made public, the town immediately declared a celebration. The festivities spanned the next few days, and the stream of people coming by my house never stopped. Many of them just wanted to meet the famous Hercules, or see this new incarnation of Iolaus, but some also wanted to thank me for the part I had played in Krathes' death. I was very surprised to be considered a bit of a hero. Definitely not my usual mode of being, to be sure!
By the time the celebration had ended, Iolaus was up and around, looking not too much worse for the experience. As I had expected, I had no further opportunities to be alone with him, even if he hadn't been still recuperating from his wound. Hercules rarely let him out of his sight, although I doubt anyone other than me would have noticed it. I was beginning to feel decidedly sorry for the demi-god, having someone he might well have loved so close by all the time, but not being able to do anything about it, knowing full well that Iolaus loved someone else.
It wasn't until the two of them were actually in the process of leaving that I got a moment to talk to Iolaus alone. I had stayed a little apart from the mob of well-wishers come to make their farewells. I was prepared to simply watch from a distance, thinking it would be easier that way, but Iolaus had a different idea. Separating himself from the crowd around Hercules, he came over to where I was standing.
"You saved my life," he began. With a rather uncertain quirk of his lips, he held out his hand.
I took the offered hand, then pulled him into a hug.
"Whoever, or whatever, you love in the future," I said to him, "and whether or not we ever get together again, I'll always be your friend. You got that?"
"Uh-huh." He could have let go of me then and turned to leave, but he didn't. He just kept holding on. "Euphonius?"
"Thanks. For everything."
I swallowed the lump in my throat and forced myself to release him. "No problem."
He stepped back and began to turn away, then turned to me again.
"Oh, I almost forgot. I'm still wearing your ring."
He started to pull the blue moonstone circlet off his finger. I covered his hands with my own, effectively stopping him.
"Keep it. Please."
"I can't do that," he objected.
"Sure you can. Just promise me one thing."
"When you wear it, think of me."
*"The Song of the Grape" is a paraphrase of parts of Thomas Hood's poem, "The Song of the Shirt"
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