“I wished you’d speak to me, Acheron.”
He acted as if I weren’t even there.
“You have to know that I love you. I don’t want to see you like this. Please, little brother. Could you at least look at me?”
He didn’t even blink.
His lack of response angered me and a part of me wanted to lash out verbally against him. But I held my tongue. He’d been abused enough by the insults of my father and the guards and servants who fed him.
There was nothing more I could do. Ill from the knowledge, I left him and continued my preparations for Apollo.
November 20, 9529 BC
Acheron continued to lie unmoving on his bed. He stared at the ceiling as always, ignoring me while I tried to talk to him.
“I wish you’d speak to me, Acheron. I miss the way we used to talk together. You were my best friend. The only person I could ever talk to whom I knew wouldn’t tell every word I said to Father.”
Again, there was no response.
What would it take to make him acknowledge me? Surely he couldn’t continue to lie in bed like that. Then again, given the fact that he’d been sitting in a tiny hole these months past, he’d probably grown more than accustomed to not moving.
My heart aching for him, I started away from the bed when I noticed something odd. Frowning, I headed to the bedpost where his ankle was secured by a metal shackle. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at. Fresh and dried blood coated the metal.
I cringed as I saw his raw and bleeding skin that was mostly hidden from my view by the cuffs. So Acheron wasn’t always inert like this. From the wounds that marked each arm and leg, I could tell he’d been fighting fiercely for his freedom whenever he was alone.
As I saw the blood, my own vision turned red. I’d had enough of this abuse.
My fury smoldering, I left his room to find our father.
After a quick search, I learned he was out in the training area watching as Styxx practiced his sword fighting.
He gave me an agitated stare that I’d dare to interrupt his encouragements to Styxx. “Is there a problem?”
“There is indeed. I want Acheron freed. I demand it.”
He sneered at my request. “Why? What would he do with it?”
I wanted him to understand what he was doing to someone who’d never caused him harm. Someone who was his own flesh and blood. “You can’t leave him tied like a beast, Father. It’s cruel. He can’t even attend his basic needs.”
“Nor can he shame us.”
“Shame us how?”
“Women,” he snarled. “You’re ever blind. Can you not see him for what he is?”
I knew exactly who and what my brother was. “He’s a boy, Father.”
“He’s a whore.” There was more venom in those words than in the snake pit where my father threw his enemies.
It made my ire seethe. “He was a tortured slave you turned out into the street. What was he supposed to do?”
He answered me with a feral snarl.
But I refused to back down. “I won’t have this, Father. I won’t stand for it another minute. So help me, if you don’t let him out of those shackles, I will shear the hair from my head and scar my face to the point that neither Apollo nor anyone else will have use for me.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
For the first time in my life, I stared at him as an equal. There was no doubt inside me that I could carry out the threat. “For Acheron’s life, I would. He deserves better than to be kept as he is.”
“He deserves nothing.”
“Then you can find another woman to whore for Apollo.”
His eyes darkened in such a way that I was sure he’d strike me for my boldness.
But ultimately, I won this battle.
That very afternoon Acheron was freed from his bed. He lay there as the restraints were opened and I saw the suspicion in his eyes. He was waiting for something worse to happen.
Once the shackles were gone, I ordered the guards to leave the room. Acheron didn’t move until we were alone. Slowly, angrily, he pushed himself up to glare at me. He was unsteady, his muscles weak from lack of use.
His long blond hair was matted and greasy. His skin sickly pale from the darkness that had been his home. A thick beard covered his cheeks. There were deep circles underneath his eyes, but he was no longer so gaunt-the atrocious feedings had added enough weight to him that he at least appeared human.
“You can’t leave this room,” I warned him. “Father was explicit in his terms that you’re only allowed freedom in here so long as you stay hidden.”
Acheron froze at my words and gave me a piercingly cold stare.
“At least you’re no longer tied down.”
He didn’t speak to me. He never did anymore. But his swirling silver eyes spoke volumes. They told of the pain and agony that made up his life. They accused and they ached.
“My rooms are two doors down should you-”
“I can’t leave,” he snarled. “Isn’t that what you just said?”
I opened my mouth, then paused. He was right. I’d already forgotten it. “I shall come visit you, then.”
He interrupted my words with a cutting glare. “Do you remember what you said to me on your last visit to my cell?”
I struggled to recall it. I’d been angry at him for not speaking to me, but that was all I remembered. “No.”
“Go die for all I care. I can’t be bothered with you anymore.”
I winced at words I should never have spoken. They cut me soul deep which was nothing compared to how they must have felt to him. If only I’d known the misery he was in . . . “I was angry.”
He curled his lips. “And I was too weak to answer. It’s hard to speak when you go days with nothing but darkness and rats for company. But then you don’t know what it’s like to have rats and fleas bite you, do you? What it’s like to sit in your own shit.”
His nostrils flared. “Leave me, Ryssa. I don’t need your charity. I don’t need anything from you.”
“But . . .”
He shoved me from the room and slammed the door shut in my face.
I stared at it until a movement beside me caught my notice. Acheron’s guards. He had two of them to make sure he didn’t breach Father’s mandate.
So this was his fate. I’d only changed the location of his prison. He still had no freedom.
I ached deep inside my soul for him. He was alive, but to what purpose? Perhaps it would have been kinder to let him die after all. But how could I have done that? He was my brother and I did love him even when he hated me.
Ill, I turned and went back to my chambers, but there was no peace there. I’d been uncharitable to Acheron, unkind. Thoughtless. No wonder he didn’t want to speak to me.
But I couldn’t leave it at this. I would give him time. Perhaps he’d come around eventually.
At least, I hoped deep inside that he could find it within himself to forgive me for being like everyone else. For hurting him when I should have been fighting for him.
December 1, 9529 BC
As the days passed by, I learned more things about Father’s mandates for Acheron’s treatment. No one was allowed into Acheron’s room, except for me whom he refused to see, and everything he touched was to be shattered and burned.
His dishes, his sheets. Even his clothes. It was Father’s public humiliation for Acheron.
It sickened me.
Until the day I made the most frightening discovery of all.
I’d gone with several friends to see a play in the middle of the day. It wasn’t something I normally did, but Zateria had a desperate crush on one of the actors and had insisted I judge him for myself.
We’d been laughing among ourselves when I happened to notice someone who was sitting two rows down from us in the peasant section. He sat alone with a peplos shielding him. He had the hood pulled up over his head so that I could tell nothing about his features and yet something seemed oddly familiar about him.
It wasn’t until the play ended and the man got up that I realized why he was familiar.
It was Acheron.
He pulled the cowl down lower, but I’d already glimpsed the beauty of his face and I knew Styxx would never deign to come to something as common as a midday play. Even if he had, he’d never be in that section of seats.
I excused myself from my friends to go after him.
He hesitated an instant before he pulled the cowl lower and continued on his way.
Rushing to catch up, I pulled him to a stop.
He looked at me coldly. “Are you going to tell him?”
“No,” I breathed, knowing the him he meant was our father. “Why would I?”
He started away, but I stopped him again.
His expression was exasperated. “What, Ryssa?”
“How did you come to be here? The guards-”
“I bribed them,” he said in a clipped tone.
“With what? You have no money.”
The look he gave me answered that question plainly. I was nauseated with the mere thought of what he’d used to get out of the palace.
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Don’t look so horrified, Ryssa. I’ve been bartered for much less than an afternoon of freedom. At least they’re gentle with me.”
Tears stung my eyes. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“Why not? It’s all anyone wants me for.”
“That’s not true.”
I watched as he angrily lowered his cowl. I could feel the ripple that went through everyone around us as people caught sight of him.
The sudden silence was deafening. It was tangible and there was no mistaking the attention that was immediately focused on him.
Women’s heads came together as they giggled and tried to remain inconspicuous in their ogling. Men weren’t so subtle. There was no denying the fact that every one of them stared at him with longing. With desire.
I was no more immune to his unnatural allure than they were, but mine was tempered by the fact that we were family.
“Do you really want to know why your father hates me?”
I shook my head. I knew the answer. Acheron had said it the day Father had banished him. Because he, too, was attracted to Acheron and he despised the boy for it.
Acheron pushed past me, out of the stadium. With every step he took, he was dogged by offers and invitations. Even once he’d replaced his cowl, people didn’t stop calling out and pursuing him through the street.
I hurried after him.
“Don’t be like that,” a man said as he trailed behind Acheron. “I would make you a most beneficial mentor.”
“I have no need of a mentor,” Acheron said as he continued walking.
The man grabbed him roughly. “What do you want?”
“I want to be left alone.”
The man lowered Acheron’s cowl. “Tell me your price. I’ll pay anything to have you.”
That hollow, empty stare came into Acheron’s eyes as he shoved the man away from him.
“What is this?”
My blood went cold as I recognized the hostile, demanding voice of my father. I’d been so intent on Acheron and the unknown man that I had failed to realize Father and his entourage were traveling past.
Now Father’s full attention was riveted on Acheron whose face had turned to stone.
Father roughly snatched the cowl back over Acheron’s head and shoved him toward his guards who were ordered to take him into custody. Acheron was escorted back to the palace where Father had him beaten for his disobedience.
I tried to mitigate the punishment, but Father wouldn’t listen. They dragged Acheron into the courtyard outside my father’s throne room that was reserved for punishment. The guards stripped Acheron bare and delivered sixty-five strokes to his back. I couldn’t watch, but I heard every whistle of the whip as it traveled through the air and every lash that cut through his flesh.
Acheron would grunt and several times I heard him fall, only to have my father order the guards to make him stand again. Never once did he cry out.
When it was finally over, I turned to see Acheron leaning against the post, bleeding, his hands still securely tied. The guards threw a coarse blanket over him before his ropes were cut and he was dragged back to his room and locked inside.
All I could do was hold Acheron afterward. For once, he didn’t turn me away. He lay with his head in my lap as he used to do when we were children. When he would beg me to tell him why his parents hated him so.
I waited for someone to come and tend his ravaged back.
No one did.
It was only later that I learned Father had forbidden it. So I sat with Acheron for hours, holding his head as he quietly wept from the pain.
But whether he cried from the throbbing wounds of his back or the deeper ache in his heart, I didn’t know. Gods, how I wanted to take him back to that day in the orchard when it’d been just the three of us playing and laughing. Away to some place where he could be free and lackadaisical, where he’d be a normal boy of nineteen as he should have been.
When he finally fell to sleep, I continued to brush my hand through his golden hair as I stared at the ragged welts on his back. I couldn’t imagine a pain so severe.
“I love you, Acheron,” I whispered, wishing my love was enough to spare him from this.
December 10, 9529 BC
After that day, I never spoke again of the fact I knew Acheron continued to slip out of the palace to go to plays. Many days I followed him just to make sure no one bothered him. That no one knew what it was he did.