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"So you went in common clothes and sat in the common area without your guards ... fascinating."
Styxx froze as he realized he wasn't hearing Dorus's thoughts. How rare and wonderful. It didn't happen often, and he loved the mental silence. "Thank you for your aid. I won't forget it."
Dorus bowed to him. "Ever at your service, Highness. And should you ever desire to go again, let me know and I'll get you the worst seats in the house."
Styxx almost laughed at his unexpected humor. He started to leave then stopped himself. There was nothing at the palace to do. But the man beside him seemed a decent enough companion. At least for a few hours. "Dorus? Would you like to dine with me?"
"It would be my honor, Highness."
Styxx lowered his cowl as they walked toward a small kentro where they could eat in relative peace.
The owner came up immediately and bowed low before Styxx. "Highness, it's so good to see you again. Come, I have a private table for you." He led them through the small building, to a table and chaises in a back corner that had a curtain drawn up to shield it from the rest of the occupants. "Would you like your usual fare?"
"Please, Cosmos. Thank you."
He ran to gather it.
Styxx sat with his back to the wall while Dorus took the chaise across from him.
"It's good to be king, eh?" Dorus teased.
If the bastard only knew the truth ... "Prince, and yes. Some days it is."
"But not all days?"
Styxx swallowed hard. It was very rare he enjoyed the privileges of his rank. But he wasn't about to confide in someone he didn't know that well. Someone who would think him petty for complaining. "Were you at the play?"
"No, Highness. I was returning home from the market when I just happened to catch a glimpse of you. At first, I wasn't sure if I was correct. But once I was..."
Cosmos returned with kylixes of wine, while his servants brought food. Styxx and Dorus poured a small bit of wine on the floor as tribute to the gods before they took their own drink.
Styxx spent several hours with Dorus, talking about nothing and everything. By the time they parted company, he had a friend. At least that's what he assumed they were. Since he'd never had one before, he wasn't sure.
He's probably only talking to you because you're prince. Maybe. But he'd seemed sincere in his interest. And since Styxx couldn't hear his thoughts, why not? Even if Dorus had ulterior motives, it had been nice to laugh and converse with someone for once, while not knowing that the person thought him a complete and utter spoiled ass.
"Where have you been?"
He paused inside the palace at his father's demanding tone. "In town." He frowned as he saw the king's stern glower. "Is something the matter?"
"I have received disturbing news from your uncle."
Styxx went cold as dread washed over him. "What does he say?"
"Acheron has run away. He wrote to ask if I'd seen him. Have you?"
Styxx forced himself to betray no emotion whatsoever. "No, Father. Did Uncle say anything else?"
Like how he whored me to others ...
"Not really. He asked after you and sent you a gift."
His stomach cramped with dread. "What gift?"
"I didn't open it. It's in your room. Why don't you freshen up? Dinner will be served in about an hour."
He gave his father a curt bow before he went to his room on shaking legs. What would Estes send to him?
This can't be good.
Closing the door to his room, he saw the box waiting on the table. His heart pounded as he crossed the room then lifted the lid and cursed out loud. Inside was the erotiki sfaira his uncle had removed from his tongue and the small gold tag that had been around his neck. The tag of a tsoulus.
Styxx opened the note.
If I don't have my property back in my home by your birthday, you will take his place. Were I you, I'd do everything I can to help my father find him.
Styxx slammed the box shut and started to throw it into the fire. But he caught himself.
What if it was found only partially burned?
So he hid it deep in his chest near the window. He'd take it and throw it in the sea on the morrow.
The note, however, he burned, making sure not a trace of it was left behind.
What am I going to do?
He refused to help Estes find Acheron. He'd never be able to live with himself if he returned his own brother to that existence.
Are you willing to be a whore in his stead? After what he did to you?
Acheron betrayed you and held you down and laughed while Estes branded you a tsoulus....
"Welcome to my world, brother. I want you to think of me every time you see 'whore' next to your cock...."
He was furious about that and Acheron's harsh words. He wanted his brother's blood for it.
But wanting blood and actually condemning someone to something so horrific ...
I can't do it. He wasn't his father.
Besides, he was already a whore himself. And as Estes had shown him, he could be attacked even in the safety of his own bed. A bed he hadn't slept in since. He couldn't bear it. Every night, he dragged his blankets into the receiving room to sleep on the floor and every morning, he returned them to his bed so no one knew.
Yet if Estes had his way, everyone would learn what he was.
And how he'd been used.
June 21, 9532 BC
"I do not understand women."
Styxx didn't say anything as his father continued to rail against Ryssa as they journeyed to the summer palace. His father had summoned her home and she'd refused to return.
So here they were, fetching her back.
"What gets into their minds?"
Styxx shrugged. "Mites?"
His father laughed. "Only you could lighten my mood this day." Sighing, his father dismounted at the steps.
Styxx slid to the ground as the guards with them dismounted. The palace looked empty. But then it always did when they weren't in residence.
Normally, they'd have moved in a month ago, but with the war looming, his father had decided to stay closer to the mainland and in the palace that was easier to fortify and more centrally located.
His father waited for the guards to open the door before he entered to find the palace as empty inside as it appeared outside. But as they searched through it, it was obvious that someone was in residence. The furniture was uncovered in several of the smaller rooms, and Ryssa's bedchambers were fresh with flowers.
The king shook his head as he glanced around. "She must be out back."
Styxx followed his father through the doors and into the garden.
"She's always favored the orchard," he reminded his father. Though she'd had a fit any time Styxx had tried to join her there. The last time they'd stayed here, she'd even hit him in the head with an apple when he'd gone down to tell her she had a letter from their aunt. Then she'd had the nerve to tell their father that he'd spied on her.
He'd been given a dozen lashes for that. A woman needs her privacy, boy. You don't ever spy on your sister.
And he'd never told his father about the apple he'd taken to his head. Because that his father would have viewed as being a crybaby on his part, which would have resulted in another beating.
As they entered the orchard, Styxx slowed at the sound of two voices.
Ryssa's and Acheron's.
He wanted to grab his father and pull him away from here, but it was too late. His father had already seen them and he was furious over it.
Ryssa pushed herself up from where she'd been sitting on the ground beside Acheron. "Father. Why are you here?"
"Where have you been?" he demanded as he moved forward. "It's already the middle of the year and no one has seen you."
"I told you, I wanted time-"
"Father?" Acheron's excited voice interrupted Ryssa and it turned their father's attention toward him.
Damn it, Acheron. Why can't you learn when to run?
Then again, Acheron did run. Just not in the right direction. His face alight with joy, he rushed to embrace their father.
Styxx winced as his father shoved Acheron away ruthlessly and raked his twin brother with a repugnant grimace that cut through him like a dagger. How can you be like that with him and claim to love me?
They were absolutely identical.
Except for the whore brand on Styxx's groin ...
Acheron frowned in confusion as he looked to Ryssa for an explanation.
I'm sorry, Acheron. I didn't want you to know. Ryssa's thoughts were loud and clear. She'd been lying to Acheron all this time. Telling him that their father loved him and would welcome him home.
Stupid bitch. Why would she be so cruel?
But that answer he knew ... No woman can ever be trusted. They are all treacherous beasts. His mother had schooled him well on that knowledge.
"What is he doing here?" their father demanded.
Styxx wasn't paying much attention to them as Acheron locked gazes with him. His brother looked so happy to see him.... It definitely wasn't the same reception Acheron had given him in Atlantis when Styxx had tried to set him free.
In many ways, this wasn't the same Acheron at all. The man in front of him was much more akin to the brother he'd once known. The brother Styxx had risked his life for.
And the thought that their father would send Acheron back to Atlantis horrified him.
Why didn't you run farther than this, brother?
Why hadn't his stupid sister taken Acheron someplace really safe?
"Guards!" his father shouted.
Styxx winced, wishing he could grab his brother and run. But they would catch them and there was no telling what their father might do to them.
What Estes would do or say over it.
Ryssa gaped. "What are you doing?" she shrieked at her king and father.
There was no mercy in their father's eyes. "I'm sending him back where he belongs."
Acheron's jaw went slack as he turned toward Ryssa with terrified eyes.
She shook her head. "You can't do that."
Their father turned on her with a glare so hateful it made her take a step back in fear. "Have you lost your mind, woman? Why would you coddle such a monster?"
"Father, please," Acheron begged, falling down on his knees before him. He wrapped his arms around the king's leg. "Please don't send me back. I'll do anything you ask. I swear it. I'll be good. I won't look at anyone. I won't hurt anyone." Acheron kissed the king's feet reverently.
Styxx thought he'd vomit at the sight that reminded him of when he'd been tortured in the Dionysion. He'd made the same pleas, and his father had walked out on him with no compassion or regard.
Just as he did Acheron.
"I am not your father, maggot." He kicked Acheron away then glared at his most beloved Ryssa with venom. "I told you, he doesn't belong with this family. Why would you defy me so?"
"He's your son," she sobbed. "How can you deny him? It's your face he has. Styxx's face. How can you love one and not the other?"
Because he doesn't love me, bitch. Not really.
Their father reached down and gripped Acheron's jaw tightly in his hand. He pulled him roughly to his feet so that Acheron faced Ryssa. "Those are not my eyes. Those are not the eyes of a human!"
Ryssa turned to him then, weeping. "Styxx ... He's your brother. Look at him."
He glanced to his father in panic, unsure of what his father would do if he stood up for Acheron right now. In the mood his father was in, he was as likely to turn on Styxx as he was Acheron.
Better to let the old man calm down than to anger him further.
Sorry, brother. Last time I put my ass on the line for you, you handed me over without a second thought or ounce of remorse.
No ... worse, you helped whore me and branded me as one.
His gut knotting, Styxx shook his head and repeated Acheron's vicious words that he'd said to Estes in a very similar situation. "I have no brother."
His father shoved Acheron back.
Acheron stood there quietly, his eyes dazed by the harsh reality of how their father felt about him. It was something Styxx coped with every single day of his life.
But what hurt was that he knew the exact thoughts in his brother's mind. They were the same ones that haunted him constantly. Acheron was reliving every perversion of Estes's. Every disgusting, humiliating touch ...
His brother dropped his head and wrapped his arms around himself.
"Take him back to Atlantis!" the king ordered the guards.
Styxx cringed at his father's harsh sentence. A sentence the stupid bastard didn't even comprehend. But Styxx knew.
And so did Acheron.
Without a word of protest or fight, Acheron followed them to the front of the palace.
He was again the petrified slave who'd caused Styxx to be captured....
Ryssa glared at their father with hatred burning deep in her eyes. "Estes abuses him, Father. Constantly. He sells Acheron to-"
Their father slapped her.
"That is my brother you speak of. How dare you!"
Stunned, Styxx went bug-eyed. Never had his father laid a hand to her. That alone testified to what Estes had told him. His father would defend Estes to the bitter end.
Even against his own children.
"And that is my brother you cast off. How dare you!" Ryssa snarled before she stormed after Acheron.
"Lying whore! Just like her drunken mother!"
Styxx couldn't breathe as those harsh words slammed into him. His father had never spoken of his beloved kitten like that. If he would turn on his treasured daughter, Styxx didn't have a single hope. "What if she isn't lying, Father?"
The expression on his father's face made him take a step back. "Are you to defame my brother, too?"
Not with that look on your face, old man. I'm not that stupid or drunk. "Forgive me, Father."
Wanting to put distance between them, Styxx hurried after Ryssa.
He found her in the front entranceway of the palace. Acheron held his head even lower than before. His grip on his arms was so tight that his knuckles were white.
"Acheron?" Ryssa breathed.
He refused to look at her while Styxx hovered in the doorway behind them.
She brushed the hair back from Acheron's face with a tenderness she'd never shown Styxx. "Acheron, please. I didn't know they'd come today. I thought we were safe."
"You lied to me," he said simply as he stared blankly at the floor. "You told me my father loved me. That no one was ever going to make me leave here. You swore that to me."
Styxx shook his head as his own anger and pain ripped through him. How could she lie to Acheron like that? Surely she'd asked for Acheron's return as much as he had and had been given the same hate-filled no from their father, who would never acknowledge his other son.
"I know, Acheron," she sobbed.
Acheron turned to her then to glare at her with a hatred that was searing. "You made me trust you."
"I'm so sorry."
Styxx had to bite back bitter laughter. Sorry, Ryssa? Really? The pathetic moron had no idea what Estes was going to do to Acheron on his return. But Styxx knew. His uncle had already shown him.
Acheron was going to wish himself as dead as Styxx did.
His brother shook his head. "I was never to step foot out of my chambers without escort. Never was I to leave the household. Idikos will punish me for leaving. He'll..." Horror filled his eyes as he tightened his grip on himself even more.
Styxx's stomach heaved. He took a step forward then caught himself. If he tried to help Acheron now, they would both pay. Dearly.
The horses were brought forward.
His brother looked at Ryssa. "I wish you'd left me as I was."
She should have. Because this was going to be so much worse on him. The Acheron who'd fought him months ago in Atlantis had been relegated to his fate. The one in front of him now had tasted life without Estes and his perversions.
To send him back to that now ...
His sister was the worst of all. Estes would tighten his grip on Acheron even more. His brother would never know another moment of peace or freedom. Not so long as Estes and their father lived.
Styxx forced himself to stay and say nothing as the guards hauled Acheron into a chariot. His brother never looked back as they drove him away.
"Acheron!" Maia, the cook's young daughter, screamed as she came tearing out of the doorway.
Only then did Acheron look back. His face stoic, tears glistened in his swirling silver eyes.
Styxx panted, knowing better than to let his father see his emotions. The king was too volatile. And the last thing Styxx needed was a beating. Not if he was to do what he planned.
Ryssa fell to her knees and pulled the little girl into her arms. The two of them wailed until his ears rang with it.
"Get up!" his father snarled as he finally joined them. "I will not have you cry for something like him."
"I hate you!" she screamed.
Styxx snatched her back before their father slapped her again or did something worse to her. "Go to your room, Ryssa. Now."
She raked Styxx with the ugliest sneer imaginable. "I wish it was you I'd found tied to that bed! You I would have left there to be used like the worthless whore you are. It's what you deserve the way you use people and discard them!"
For a full minute, Styxx couldn't catch his breath as those brutal words slapped him harder than any blow. In his mind, he saw himself on that bed again being used like he was nothing.
Knowing if he stayed, he'd beat her himself, Styxx left her to their father.
Breathe. Calm down. She doesn't know.
Still, it didn't take the pain away. She truly meant what she'd said. He heard it in her thoughts. She held no love or regard for him whatsoever, and she would gladly condemn him to Estes's custody to be a whore in Acheron's stead.
Her hatred of him was as unreasoning and unfounded as his father's for Acheron.
Styxx pressed his hand to his stomach as grief, shame, and horror racked him. But beneath all that was the bitter agony of Ryssa's rejection of him. Why did she hate him so much? Never in his life had he done anything to her.
He flinched at his father's call. Blinking, he took a deep breath and forced his emotions into restraint. Gods help him if his father saw him like this.
Styxx couldn't stand being hurt anymore. He just wanted a modicum of peace for a few minutes.
"Majesty?" he said as he returned to his father's side.
"We'll stay the night and leave at dawn."
"Yes, Sire." Styxx hesitated. "Father? Would you mind if I took a few hours to myself tonight?"
A slow smile curled his lips. "There's a brothel in town that's one of the best in all Greece. Have fun."
Disgusted with what his father's mind had defaulted to, Styxx waited until his father was gone before he made his way to the stable. As quickly as he could, he saddled two fresh horses and took off after his brother.
For the love of the gods, Acheron. Don't get me caught again.
* * *
Styxx hung back until he was sure the guards were asleep. Taking care to make no sound whatsoever, he made his way over to Acheron, who'd been tied to a stake in the ground.
"Acheron?" he whispered, touching his brother on the shoulder.
Acheron came awake with a start. He grimaced as he saw Styxx in the fading firelight. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm freeing you." When Styxx went to cut the rope, Acheron stopped him. "What are you doing?" he asked Acheron in a shocked whisper.
"You already told me I was no brother of yours. Why are you really here?"
Styxx glared at him. "You denied me first."
With a fierce scowl, Acheron scoffed. "I have never once in my life denied you! You and your father are the ones who threw me out."
Styxx ground his teeth. Acheron truly had no memory of his being in Atlantis. At all. And unfortunately, this was not the time to argue about it. "We have to go."
"Anywhere. I can't leave you to this. Not again."
Acheron caught his hand then shoved him back before he could cut the tie. "Are you fucking stupid? Do you know what happens to boys our age on their own?"
Yes, but they weren't drugged out of their minds now. While one of them alone was weak, the two of them could protect each other. "I can work as a mercenary. They make good money."
"And I'm what? The camp whore?" Acheron asked incredulously. "What do you think they'd do to me while you're out playing hero and warrior? Really?" He raked a brutal glare over Styxx's body. "And don't fool yourself, Highness." He sneered the title. "You have the same unnatural lure I do that makes everyone who sees you want to fuck you, too. The only reason you're left alone is because you're a known prince. If you think you're any better than me, I defy you to walk into a town where they don't know you and watch how fast you're thrown on the ground and butt-fucked until you can't walk straight."
Those words tore through him, especially the part that was truest. But still ...
"You really want me to leave you here?"
Acheron's glower sliced through him. "I want all of you to leave me alone. Forever. I'm done with you."
He well understood that feeling and declaration.
Even so, Styxx couldn't leave his brother defenseless. He pulled the dagger from his belt and buried it in the ground between them. "Do us both a favor. When you get back, drive that straight through Estes's dead heart."
Acheron raked him with another sneer. "You're the soldier. Why don't you?"
Wanting to soothe his brother and make him see reason, Styxx reached for him. "Acheron-"
He knocked his hand away. "You're dead to me. You've been dead to me since the day you let them take me from my home."
Styxx was aghast that he'd throw that in his face. "I was seven."
"So was I."
Rage darkened Styxx's gaze. For this selfish asshole, who held something against him he couldn't have even begun to fight, he'd been whored? Beaten?
"Fuck you, Acheron!"
"Why not? You're the only one who hasn't."
Styxx scoffed. "Not according to Estes."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Unable to even contemplate that nightmare, Styxx held his hands up in surrender. "You have a weapon. Use it, if you're man enough. I'm done with you, brother. I will never again jeopardize my ass for yours. Ever."
Rising, Styxx glared down at his twin then he turned and walked away.
You can't save those who don't want to be saved.
Like Ryssa, Acheron made no sense to him. If he were Acheron and he had any chance to stay away from Atlantis, he'd take it.
But what the Hades ...
His deadline was almost up. Now Estes would have his pet back. Styxx wouldn't have to go to Atlantis in his brother's stead. He should be happy.
Yet he wasn't. How could he be happy that his brother was so terrified and beaten down that he wouldn't even try to fight anymore?
In this, no one won. Least of all Acheron.
Styxx swung himself up on his horse and took the reins of the one he'd brought for his brother. Against his will, he looked back to see Acheron lying down on the ground by the campfire as if he was completely content to go back to Estes's home.
Part of him still wanted to charge into camp and force his brother to leave. But Acheron and Estes had already shown him what that would get him in the end.
When someone is drowning and you try to save them, they're more likely to drown you before you pull them out.
Acheron had done enough damage to him. He would not allow him to do any more, no matter how much pity Styxx held for him in his heart.
"Good luck, brother. May you find peace someday."
June 23, 9532 BC
"Happy birthday, you little prick!"
His head throbbing in agony, Styxx barely had time to duck before Ryssa lobbed her gift at him. It struck the wall beside his face. "What is your problem?"
"You! Every day I have to look at you, knowing what Acheron is going through, is one I hate you more."
Styxx bent over and fished his "gift" from the floor. He held it up for her to see. "Thank you, dearest sister. I shall treasure it always, and especially the manner in which it was received."
Twisting her face up, she silently mocked his words. "You think you're so clever. You're nothing but a fatuous, spoiled brat."
"One wrapped so tight in familial love that it suffocates me," he said sarcastically.
"You absolutely disgust me. How can you stand here in your comfort while your twin suffers so?"
It wasn't easy, but Acheron had given him no choice whatsoever.
Styxx curled his lips at her. "What do you know of it?"
"I know that Estes sells him!"
Styxx froze as he saw his father nearing them. If he heard one word of this ...
There was no telling what the king might do to her.
He dropped his tone so that only Ryssa could hear him. "And you'd best listen to me, dear sister. For your own good. Estes would never do such a thing. It's another of your lies designed to make us free Acheron. Do you understand?"
She slapped him so hard his ears rang from the blow. "You're a selfish, worthless coward! I burn for the day when I stand over your corpse. Better yet, I would gladly pay any cost to see you whored one day the way Acheron is."
Styxx glared at her as those words pricked memories he tried to keep buried. "And you should be grateful I'm not king yet. I'd have you whipped for such treachery." Wiping the blood from his lips, he left her and headed for his room.
He hesitated at his father's call from downstairs. Given how badly his face burned, he knew his sister's handprint would be plainly evident.
"Yes, Father," he said without moving.
"Could you come here, please?"
Sighing, Styxx turned and closed the distance between them.
His father's eyes widened as he saw the mark. "What happened to you?"
Styxx rubbed his hand over his stinging cheek. "Said something to a woman I shouldn't have."
"What woman? Name her and I'll have her whipped for the audacity."
Sure you would.... But honestly, he didn't want to chance it. "It's fine, Father. Some might say I deserved it."
That didn't placate the king at all. "You are the prince and must be respected as such!"
Did that include his uncle molesting him, or his twin? He had to bite back that hostility before it got him a lot worse than a bitch-slap. "Did you need something, Father?"
"I wanted to go over the banquet tonight with you."
Styxx glanced up to see Ryssa standing beside his mother on the stair ledge. Both were staring a hole through him. He was so tired of it all. The lies, the deceit.
But worse was the knowledge that if the truth ever came out, Ryssa would gloat. His mother, too. The two of them would probably pay Estes for a front row seat to watch his uncle plow him open.
Unaware that Styxx was distracted, the king continued on. "Would you mind seeing Senator Nileas about the proposal he said he'd have to me yesterday? He should be in the forum this time of day."
"I shall see it done, Father." Ignoring his mother and sister, Styxx left the palace then headed for the forum in the center of town.
His face had finally stopped burning by the time he reached the building where many of the noblemen gathered to drink and philosophize away from their wives. Since he could hear their thoughts and knew the majority of them despised him with a venom that made Ryssa look like a devoted fan, he tended to avoid this place whenever he could.
Ironically, the thing they criticized and held against him most was the fact that he'd refused to pick one of them as his "mentor." Rather he'd designated Galen instead of a nobleman because he knew Galen wouldn't expect him to bend over when they were alone together. Nor would Galen expect political favors from him later.
And the old war dog held at least a modicum of regard for him. While his choice was extremely unconventional, it gave him one less nightmare to endure.
"Where's Nileas?" Styxx asked the first senator he found in the complex.
"In the back, Highness. With Patrokles."
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