The mountain itself has two horns, like the god to whom it is sacred. The symbolism isn’t lost on Wel, because almost nothing is.
It also isn’t lost on him that Hannibal is trying to disguise his panting, that he’s struggling to keep up with the pace Wel is setting up the narrow path. He doesn’t slow down. He quiets his own breath so that he can listen to Hannibal’s soft gasps, his conscious effort to control it and the moment where he lets go of the control and beathes hard and loud. Bodies knit back together, but incompletely. As do minds. As does the world, surely. If the world is ripping apart at the seams, if it bleeds and the blood boils and froths, surely new skin can grow over the wound, one day.
There’s an altar in between the two summits. Nobody is here; this place is only used on festival days. Even from the altar, with the peaks still above them, the sea is visible. Across the bay, Carthage. He looks at it and thinks, home. It feels no more or less like the word than anywhere else. Then he turns around, and watches Hannibal stride the last few steps with a glare that looks like he’s in the mood to strangle someone as soon as he gets his breath back, and the word home, in all of his languages, slots into place in the sharp hollows of Hannibal’s cheeks, and his nimble vicious hands, and the hidden scarred flesh of his abdomen.
There’s a stele by the altar, with an image of Baal Hammon whose sacred place this mountain is. Wel studies it with personal, not professional, curiosity. “I seem to have a type,” he says.
Hannibal has mostly caught his breath. Wel finds he doesn’t feel guilty about causing him suffering on the way up. Hannibal will never object to it. He’ll never object to anything Wel does to him, and Wel will never object to anything Hannibal does, and–
–he swallows. The future spreads out beneath him like the sea. “Horns,” he clarifies. “Baal Hammon and Ammon-Re have horns.” He stares down at the god’s domain as Hannibal reaches out to do something to him. Baal Hammon’s people are mariners; their boats crowd the harbours. From here, they are specks of dust on the endless water.
All Hannibal does to him– this time– is touch behind his ears, as if Wel might grow a pair of horns of his own.
Wel imagines taking them to the top of the sacred mountain and throwing them off. Imagines the rush of air, them caught together by a gust of air sent by the horned one, landing in the sea and sinking into the darkness. Hannibal pushes him up against the stele and kisses him, and the god sends nothing but sunshine and warm breezes, but it feels a little bit like falling into the sea anyway.
“So,” Mismalka the Younger appears in the doorway, “Has he stopped shitting his brains out?”
Wel, who has just dressed himself after managing to take a bath for the first time in quite a while, is just a little too slow to muster enough words in the local Phoenecian dialect to say Yes, and thank you for fetching the country well-water for me. Hannibal answers “I am pleased to say that his brains are remaining more or less in their appointed location” instead, and she cackles with laughter. It is a little funny; he’s been nearly to the ends of the earth, yet it is the more or less clean city water that his stomach apparently needs to get used to slowly.
“Isn’t tending the sickbed my job, Father?” she asks.
Hannibal raises his eyebrows. “Do you want it back?”
“No, I’m busy. Jezy and I ran into some Kushite women on our way to the well, and they invited us to some festival. It’s going to be a big party in the desert, singing, dancing, sacrifices to… um…” she has clearly forgotten the name of the god whose festival the event is supposed to be, and has only now remembered that such minor details might be important to Wel. “Anyway.” She makes a little half-mocking bow to him. “May I have permission to go, my lord?”
It’s become an inside joke between them, the asking for permission. Wel was surprised at first by how well they get along, but of course he shouldn’t have been; she is of Hannibal. “May I have permission to stay here?” he counters.
“Granted.” Wel closes his eyes and listens to the whirlwind of the household preparing for her departure, and the silence afterwards.
Hannibal, of course, can’t leave silence alone. Apparently he had been positively starved during Wel’s illness. He pulls back the sheet and swallows Wel’s cock, soft and unsuspecting– okay, maybe a little suspecting. In some ways, Hannibal is entirely predictable. “Ugh, fuck,” he groans, even as his body responds with interest. “Hannibal, I’m tired.”
“Good. Lie still.” When Wel tries to push himself up anyway Hannibal reaches up and slaps his cheek; probably harder than he intended, since it stings like hell, which just proves how horny he is. It’s a good thing Mismalka is gone; his face will be red tomorrow, and she would tease him for it. Wel flops back down, laughing, and lets Hannibal do what he wants.
What he wants is to come dangerously close to eating Wel, and then actually eat him, savouring the taste of Wel’s seed in his mouth like wine. He kisses him with a mouth that tastes of the sea, then tucks him back under the sheet. Wel’s last impression before sleep reclaims him is of Hannibal sitting by his bedside, watching like he plans to greet his unconscious soul.
Wel has the last of the bottle of wine in his glass, and the dregs are mostly sediment. He throws them on the floor, where they shine in the flickering light of the last candle, the flame making its inexorable progress down the tallow and towards darkness.
Hannibal raises an eyebrow. “This is very sudden, Wel. Are you becoming a Greek? That would have been useful had you decided upon it ten years ago.”
A nose appears in the doorway. Apparently drawn by either the sound or the smell, a shaggy brown dog ambles in and licks up the wine. Wel grins sheepishly. “To the dogs are owed the completion of the bottle,” he says, his first and rather awkward attempt at a pun in Carthaginian Phoenician, the words for dog and completion being similar.
Hannibal would have to admit that far from becoming a Greek, Wel has learned the language of his new city extraordinarily quickly. In fact, he hasn’t spoken a word of Greek since they arrived here, relying on Aramaic to consult with Hannibal if he absolutely must ask for a word in Carthaginian. As if moving forward into some sort of life together requires a new language between them not just metaphorically but literally; Greek is the language of deception and betrayal, the language of knives slipping into unresisting flesh.
The candle flickers, fat dripping down the stub to accumulate on the table. “Not the completion of this,” says Hannibal. “Give me your arm.” Wel does, extending his arm palm-up, his tattooed wrist resting in Hannibal’s hand.
He hisses a little as Hannibal tilts the candle, dripping hot tallow overtop of the faded glyphs. Then he reaches for the candle himself, and Hannibal’s arm. He turns it over, running a finger over the same spot on Hannibal’s body, unmarked. Then he tips the burning fat over onto it, and it is marked only by Wel.
The candle splutters out and they are left in darkness, hand in hand.
Chapter End Notes
h/t to that essential fanfiction resource, Richard Tomback’s 1974 dissertation A Comparative Semitic Lexicon of the Phoenician and Punic Languages on Xerox University Microfilms.
Wel is nervous to come back. There are only soft tired voices sounding from the room, which means that everything is fine. Everything is fine. And surely he would have forseen disaster, anyway– dreams, visions, pain, something– and he hadn’t. So there had really been no reason for him to be nervous. Mismalka hadn’t been nervous, or if she was, she’d kept it between her and Jezy– which is fine with Wel. Still, once it had started, Jezy and Alanat had basically had to have Hannibal drag him away.
Now that he’s allowed back in, he’s terrified. Alanat gives him a shove. “Go on,” she says, more gently than her push. “It’s all right.”
Mismalka the Younger is sleeping, which he supposes fair enough. Jezy is holding the baby, the midwife bustling around cleaning up bundles of bedding and packing away mysterious medicines. Wel has the strange feeling that they must be about to heap some sort of blame on him, chastise him for all this mess, all this fuss, just for the sake of a continuation of the family line. Well, hell, it’s not his family. Except it is, now.
“A boy!” Jezy announces, thrusting it– him— at Wel. Wel manages not to fumble and drop his own son. “That’s good,” she continues, “But you should probably have at least one more. Just in case. He seems healthy, though. Well, it’s not often they demand that the important families dedicate the first-borns any more, but you know, if there’s a war the god sometimes, well, and some are saying the treaty with Rome is getting a bit stale, and– well, anyway, children are a happiness and it’s better to have two than one. Just in case.”
Wel clutches the baby. He does not have, nor would he say if he had, the words to express to her exactly how many more prominent citizens of Carthage would be slaughtered if a grandson of Hannibal’s were tossed into a tophet.
But then the baby blinks up at him, and Wel stares at this thing, a whole other person, who looks a little like him and a little like Mismalka and therefore a little like Hannibal but mostly just like a baby, like someone new, and he says, “Yes, I’m sure you’re right– better to have two than one.”
“I told her you’d agree.” Jezy pats him on the shoulder, a little condescendingly, but he feels that it is rather better that he be condescended to in this room than overestimated. “All right. Go have a cup of wine. You look like you need it.”
He does get a cup of wine; but he gets it at the temple of Isis, the only Egyptian deity with a large temple in the city. He pours the libation to her, and it feels a little like home. But it settles on him lightly as he steps out into the twilight: that the place he’s going back to feels like home, too.
“Ah– Wel. Come in, dinner is almost ready. Was it the clock again, then?”
“Shockingly, no,” says Wel, laughing a little. “I couldn’t believe it either, but it turned out that when I told the priests last time that just because I’m probably of the same race as the inventor of the water-clock, doesn’t mean I know how to fix the newfangled monstrosity they had shipped from Greece– they actually believed me.”
“Impressive,” Hannibal agrees, pressing a cup of beer on him. He has recently taken to brewing it upon Alanat’s request, and of course Hannibal’s beer is better than any of the thick sludge for sale in the market.
Wel pulls a piece of good vellum from where it had been tucked in his belt, and smooths it out on the table. “It was this,” he says. “Not knowing where in the city to find us, Ptolemy sent it to the largest Egyptian temple, hoping the priests there would be able to summon me.”
Hannibal stills from where he had been doing something with the vats of barley in the corner, and picks up the letter. Finding it written not in Greek or Aramaic but in the Demotic script of glyphs, he hands it back. “It seems he has learned the language of his new lands as quickly as you have. What does it say?”
Wel smiles at the letter. “It’s not very good writing. But he must have noticed how the Persians were charmed by Peukestas’ attempts in their language. Anyway, it’s an invitation. He’s founding a mouseion; he’s already got scholars installed there, students making applications, a horde of scribes translating everything ever written in a language other than Greek into it. In Memphis for now, but they’ll move to Alexandria as soon as it’s ready.” Wel licks his lips, as if nervous. “He says– he says that he is officially inviting me to be the first high priest-administrator of the place, but since he knows I will refuse, we ought to consider it merely an invitation to the inauguration banquet.”
Hannibal sips beer. His eyes glitter overtop of the cup. “Do you want to?”
“To be a high priest and responsible for keeping a bunch of uppity Greek eggheads in line? No. But to see Memphis again– I never thought I’d say this, but yes. And we’d need to pass through Alexandria– to see what’s become of the city that the birds augured on the Nile…”
“We’d need to go by sea.” Hannibal is placid.
Wel tucks the letter back in his belt. “I know. How much pleasure does it give you, to watch me vomiting over the edge and tripping over my own feet for the first few days? Be honest.”
“Quite a bit. You’re very enticing when destabilized.”
“Well then.” Wel puts his beer down and nuzzles into Hannibal’s shoulder, half a caress and half an amused shake of the head. “If I’m going to be enticing, I guess we had better go.”
The sailor peers at him, in the manner of someone who is used to squinting in the sunlight and forgets that he does not need to do it when it’s cloudy. “What did you say your name was?”
“You won’t be able to say it.”
“How’m I supposed to teach a man who won’t tell me his goddamn name?”
Wel wishes he would just disembark, or else invite Wel up. He’s shouting from the dock, and the sailor– the navigator of this fine vessel, and reputed the best star-guide in all Carthage, which means the best in the world– leaning over the side of the ship, one foot up on the railing jauntily. “Weldjebauend of Siwah,” he half-shouts.
The sailor, Batnoam, laughs. “Well damn, you were right. Not saying that.” Wel manages not to say well, I told you so.
“And you say you were a priest? Siwah, that a desert place, you Amazigh? How old are you, anyway, that you have no sea legs yet? And you want to learn stars? You even know any math?”
Since only the last two questions seem to be coming close to the point, and Wel doesn’t particularly care if the man knows that he’s Egyptian or where Siwah is, he pointedly addresses only the relevant points. “Yes, I want to learn navigation. I know the ten-fingers counting of Egypt, and the twelve-knuckle counting of Babylon, and a mad Greek told me once of the unprovable parallel postulate of Eudoxos–“
“Triangles!” Batnoam practically shrieks. “You must know triangles, my friend! Well, you’ll have to be with the youths. And you’ll be the only one vomiting from the waves, that’s for sure. Why you want to learn navigation, anyway?”
The civil port of Carthage is busy today; it’s cloudy, not too hot, perfect weather for loading and unloading vessels and hauling ships into the yards for repairs. Before Wel can answer– and it’s not a very good answer, something unconvincing if not really untrue about wanting to feel comfortable at sea– a sailor with an armful of amphorae from the ship hollers, “He wants to impress a lover!”
Evidently, their conversation had been overheard. “Yeah!” Chimes in a second, sarcastic and clearly just a little bit tipsy. “It’s all the rage with the girls these days. And the boys. Forget chariot-driving and spear-throwing. They just go wild for a man who can point out all the stars of the Wagon in the North.”
Batnoam laughs. The math-lesson for the youth is at noon, onboard the ship, he tells Wel, and the star-lessons are at second watch, and he does not suffer his pupils to be late. Wel promises to be there, and waves godbye to the sailors who are still razzing him without contradicting them. After all, he can’t: when they joke that he wants sea-legs and the famed Phoenician aptitude for sky-navigation in order to impress a lover, they are perfectly right.
Chapter End Notes
Yes, the parallel postulate belongs popularly to Euclid. But he’s a newborn baby at the moment, and I need to use the word “parallel” somewhere, and the Elements contains plenty attributed to Eudoxos, whose works have been lost– so.
Wel is behaving oddly. For one, he’s wearing a sunhat, the ugly flat Macedonian kind that Hannibal hasn’t seen anyone sporting since they’d parted ways amicably with Ptolemy’s band of genteel corpse thieves, years ago. Also, he seems strangely cheerful for a man soon to be puking his guts out.
The hat, at least, is explainable by the sun; Hannibal wishes he’d brought one too, sartorial distaste be damned. It reflects off the water as well as beating down from the sky, nearly blinding them. The cheerfulness is maintained, apparently effortlessly, though the captain’s sacrifice for a safe voyage, as they unmoor from the dock and the rowers begin their work to the beat of a drum, and as they make their way down the long canal that leads to the sea. The two harbours of Carthage– commercial on the outside, and the circular military harbour beyond it– are protected from the waves by long walls, and the gates to the sea are so busy that, setting out early in the morning, they have to wait until midday to be waved through by the traffic controllers waving flags from the high towers. They pass the time like all the other passengers: putting up tents on the deck and setting out what provisions they have brought to barter with neighbours for a wider variety.
Now, thinks Hannibal as the merchant-ship in which they have bought passage passes through the gates and into the sea and begins to rock violently, now he’ll stop looking so smug. The whole of the passenger deck will see me patting his hair and bringing him water, and know he’s mine.
Wel lies on his back on a reed mat set just outside their tent, staring up at the huge sky with his hat pulled down low over his forehead. “Nice day,” he says, cockily.
Hannibal stands over him, feeling oddly irritated. And confused. And kind of turned on.
“Come down here,” Wel says, and Hannibal does, joining him on the mat to stare at the sky. He has to shade his eyes with his hand. He turns to look at Wel instead, who is grinning, then laughing.
“Your face,” he guffaws. “You look so mournful.”
“I am beginning to suspect that the project you have been so busy with for the past month was nothing to do with work at the Isis temple at all,” says Hannibal, with dignity.
“Nope,” Wel laughs. “I learned to love boats. Just for you. Batnoam even brought his students on a quinquereme– compared to being tossed around on that thing, this is nothing.”
Hannibal would have to admit that it was a good idea. But he won’t, out loud.
Then Wel reaches up and pulls him down into a kiss, and everyone on deck is staring at them anyway, so perhaps it’s all right that Wel found his sea-legs. He wraps those legs around Hannibal’s back, and a sailor whistles, and yes. It’s definitley all right.
“Looks nice.” Wel is at the wooden railing of the merchant-ship, staring out at the first major land-mass that they’ve seen since sailing from Carthage. The first, and the most intimidating; after passing through the strait in between Sicily and the mainland, which the Greeks like to style Scylla and Charybdis, they need only wave at the Peloponnese and Crete as they pass by. The weather has been good; with any luck, they’ll be in Alexandria half a month after leaving Carthage.
“Nice enough for how much bloodshed?” Hannibal asks.
Wel tilts his head, considering the lush green mountains of Sicily rising slowly in front of them. “Oh, I don’t know. I’d kill maybe six or seven people for it. If they were real assholes.”
It’s an odd sensation: the knot of unease that had tied in Hannibal’s chest at the approach of the island that has caused so much strife between the Phoenicians and the Greeks relaxes at the joke. At the same time, something else winds tight at the topic of the humour.
“Don’t say things like that,” he murmurs, pressing up close behind Wel so that the other passengers sight-seeing don’t hear, “unless you’re hoping for me to procure you six or seven assholes.”
Wel pinches the flesh of the arm winding around his chest, somewhat absently. “One is enough for me. So I guess my estimate was low, huh?”
“Every olive grove and vineyard on that island has been watered with blood and nourished with corpses. The spirits of the unburied dead drip down the mountain springs and call to each other across the valleys.”
Wel is quiet. Prophets are supposed to see the future, but the future is visible only by looking into the past, and he has always been uncomfortably adept at prophesying the past.
“The river,” he says finally. “Sicily is where you–” he doesn’t finish the sentence, nuzzles his chin into Hannibal’s encircling arm instead. Should have died, he’d said once, tongue and gift loosened by Hannibal’s drug. He doesn’t say it now.
He reaches under his tunic instead, to unfasten the knife strapped there; after Wel’s body, perhaps the most familiar object on Earth to Hannibal. Wel opens Hannibal’s hand with his own and places it there, the old bronze of the knife warm and reassuring. Copper from Cyprus, tin from the Zagros mountains, blood and guts from Egypt.
“Keep it until we round the island,” says Wel. “It will ward off nightmares.” He seems very sure of that, and Hannibal has never doubted something Wel was sure of. He will dream of water and blood each night; but they will be pleasant dreams.
“We should get going if we’re going to visit the statues and be back to the ship by nightfall,” Wel says.
They continue floating on their backs staring at the mosaiced ceilings.
“Also, the attendent said you’re supposed to go in the cold tub after the hot.”
“I doubt we will perish from the deprivation of cold if we do not.” They’d agreed to speak Greek once they set foot on land. Hannibal, perhaps because out of practice, insists on speaking Greek even more like an Aristophanic parody of a pompous sophist than Wel had remembered. Or maybe he’s preparing to meet Ptolemy’s stable of scholars, who will adore him.
They float. There are only a few other voices, echoing off the walls of other rooms.The baths at Olympia are built for the athletes at the Games; this is a minor tourist destination the rest of the time, receiving the occasional merchant ship that stops on the Peloponnesian coast and grants a shore leave long enough for passengers and sailors to poke around. Finally the attendent, who apparently wants to go home for the day, kicks them out with a disapproving observation that they ought to have gone to the cold pool while there was still time.
Wel has learned by now that the disorienting result of gaining one’s sea-legs is that it makes the first few hours on land feel disturbingly unstable. He tries not to pitch over as they walk across the grounds for the Games, heading towards one of the newest areas of the grounds: the statues installed by Philip of his family.
It’s cool under the dome; Wel is already sweating from the walk, which in retrospect is probably why cold baths are recommended before dressing. They glance politely at the statues of Philip, Olympias, Amyntas and Eurydice, as if the statues might be watching and take offense if ignored, before turning to whom they came to see.
“He looks so young,” says Wel quietly.
“He always looked young,” says Hannibal. “He always was young.”
“He didn’t look it, at the end. Didn’t you walk through the sickroom, with the troops?”
“Yes. And he looked young.”
Wel considers, for the first time, that Hannibal’s eldest son Hamilcar was probably born around the same year as Alexander. Hannibal hadn’t known whether his children were still alive, on the day that every soldier had been permitted to say goodbye to their King. He must have walked through that room, its stench of flux and the fear of generals, and imagined his own progeny in the bed.
But it hadn’t been. And they’d made it home, and everyone had been alive, and now there is a child with Wel and Hannibal’s blood mingled in his veins.
Wel doesn’t say it out loud: Alexander would have scoffed, and the eyes look too lifelike. But he thinks it: you were favoured by all the gods. But we– we are the lucky ones.
“This is stupid,” Wel whispers in Aramaic. Since no Carthaginians and certainly no Cretans bother to learn the administrative language of the Persians, one or the other precaution would probably have sufficed, but at least the feeling of illicit communication is a scrap of entertainment.
“Don’t spoil their fun,” Hannibal whispers back in the same language. “This is all these people have.”
“Not like you to be so magnanimous.”
Wel watches Hannibal’s little smile widen out of the corner of his eye as a man dressed in an extremely shoddy, old Minotaur costume explains the rules of the maze to them in the voice of one who has said the same words before many times in his life. Crete is full of these tourist attractions: anyone who can afford a bit of stone, or even some tall hedges, sets up shop as a tourist trap labyrinth. Wel and Hannibal had had the bad luck to be walking with a group of sailors from the ship when the minotaur-man had approached them with something to sell, and the sailors had reacted like little children. They are practically bouncing out of their skins to be allowed to get lost, or at least convince themselves they’re lost, in an ugly maze of whitewashed walls and sickly-looking ivy. It would have been rude, Hannibal had decided, to beg off from the group.
Eventually they are set loose into the thing. The sailors take off, and from their talk Wel finally understands what they had been so enthusiastic about: apparently there are wine-merchants haunting certain corners of the maze, and a favourite game is to drink enough wine that one is unable to get out.
They don’t drink that much, but they do drink enough that the maze begins to seem less prosaic and cheap, and more mysterious. Then they find the centre of the maze; a square little room with nothing in there but a wax sign that says “YOU DID IT– now try to get back out!” It’s badly translated into several different languages. Wel scratches the Demotic underneath all the rest with a thumbnail.
Hannibal boxes him against the wall, kissing his neck. “Traditionally, the centre of the labyrinth is where the sacrifices were eaten,” he says.
“Don’t you dare,” Wel laughs, which of course ensures that Hannibal does. He drops to his knees and sucks Wel’s cock under his tunic, a sex act that Wel has never heard of anyone doing consensually for free, except Hannibal. Hannibal is invulnerable: things that degrade other people elevate him.
It doesn’t sound like as desirable a superpower as any of the old heroes, but somehow it is better. Their next shore will be Egypt. Wel kisses the mouth that unashamedly swallowed him down, and almost forgets to feel nervous.
Alexandria-on-the-Nile is very… square. Or at least, what exists of it so far is square; and what exists so far is rather impressive considering that a man born on the day Alexander had chosen the site would today be just barely old enough to join in battle.
It is square, the man that rents them horses enthusiastically points out, because squareness is the way of the future. Perfectly straight roads, intersecting each other at precise right angles, larger roads placed at uniform intervals in relation to smaller ones, just as Hippodamos of Milesios intended. This is how men of learning desire to live, and Alexandria will soon be the most learned city the world has ever seen.
Wel doesn’t particularly care at what angle streets intersect each other, but decides that it’s nice that the people here are so excited about it.
They hire a room for the night at an inn that has a strong resemblance to a Persian-style caravanserai, except that the rooms are smaller, shabbier, and more expensive. The mud-brick building has a thrown-together feeling and more floors than is really advisable. The crowded hallways and common rooms of the place also draw to mind inescapably what the Sumerians had thought to be the work of Enki, the scattering of the languages of the well-guarded people; and the Hebrews think to be the work of Yahweh, who punished the building of the Etemenanki in Babylon with the same condition. It seems from first impression that no two individuals in the inn have the same native tongue.
“Yes, it must be the work of some god,” Wel muses as they set off for a walk through the city in the twilight. Interpreters litter the streets like prostitutes do in other cities; they have already turned down the services of three. “Why would we races of men have chosen to be so unable to communicate with each other, unless divinely cursed?”
“Tell me, Wel– who is crueler, gods or men? Hannibal asks. “Do we not bring curses enough upon ourselves? Perhaps misunderstanding, and the cruelty that comes with it, is a gift humanity has given itself.”
Wel smiles. He would have said, once, that gods are crueler than men could ever be. Then he’d seen more of the world, and reconsidered. Now he is back in Egypt, where the Pharaoh takes his authority from Wel’s own god, and he can no longer decide. He’d expected to feel crowded out, pushed around by the god and the mortal who own him equally. But so far, Hannibal and Ammon-Re seem to be coexisting peacefully in his breast.
“Both,” he says. “Both are crueler.” They turn a perfectly right-angled corner into yet another construction zone. He doesn’t say, though, that both are also more loving. Hannibal knows.
To a man who has taken great pains to acclimate to sea-voyages, there is nothing quite so disorienting as a trip down the Nile by riverboat.
On one hand, it is most definitely a boat. You know it is a boat because shy Persians, who have a horror of being witnessed while urinating or defecating, in the absence of trees or shrubs instead set up little screens while they do their business into a pot or over the side. Greeks, by contrast, have a somewhat disturbing enthusiasm for being witnessed while eliminating, as if a strong stream of piss or a perfectly-formed turd were proof of bodily perfection and sexual prowess. On the whole Wel prefers the Persians, and begins accepting their offers of screened privacy; until it gets out that he is a seer, and they start to take advantage of his trapped presence behind it to start proselytizing to him about monotheism. Such choices– either shit in public, or emerge from behind the screen with some excuse as to why one is currently unavailable to discuss the supremacy of the Wise Lord– do not happen on land.
On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to know you were on water through any other means. The boat glides along smoothly, and the view over the side appears more like some extremely large wagon-route than anything else. The Nile is so crowded with boats of all sorts that it sometimes seems difficult to even catch a glimpse of water. Instead of gazing at the water, passengers crowd the sides of the decks and amuse themselves by shouting at each other where they are from. Hannibal is a great hit in these exchanges.
Wel doesn’t join in. There is something in him that is terrified to, and on the second day of the three-day journey he figures out what: it is entirely possible that some of the passengers on other boats have actually been to Siwah.
He has grown used to his childhood home being some mystical, far-off place. To Greeks, Persians, and Phoenicians, Siwah is a legend; the divine power that had refused Cambyses, rebuked the bribe of Lysander, and crowned Alexander. To Egyptians, it is merely a reliable desert temple of Ammon-Re; not convenient to get to, but certainly not impossible. Someone on this river could tell him who is head priest these days. Could tell him if Joh is still alive. Could tell him what the oracle has said on the subject of Ptolemy. Could tell him if anyone there still talks of Weldjebauend, son of the sand.
Alexander had desired to be buried at Siwah; but it would be impossible for the funeral bier to make the journey over sand. Wel is alive, not entombed in a gold coffin. But when he thinks of Carthage, of Hannibal, of Mismalka with Hannibal the Younger in her arms– it seems, or perhaps he just hopes it to be, just as impossible for him to ever go home.
“You look like a man who takes pleasure seriously, sir.”
Hannibal turns slowly towards the voice. He is, it’s true, dressed rather ostentatiously for a mere walk around the neighbourhood. Well, his holdings are doing well back home, and he had brought Phoenician finery to wear around the Greek scholars; what of it?
“I would not be so foolish as to take it lightly,” he says.
The merchant to whom the voice belongs oozes out of a doorway. “Very right,” he says. “I can offer you the finest selection west of Babylon.”
The man has probably never been to Babylon. Probably, in fact, never left Memphis. Who knows what his lurid imagination has conjured up of the place, but Hannibal decides that he does not need to defend the proud old city, which if the gods were not insane would right now be the capital of the empire of the world, from the likes of him. “No, thank you,” he says frostily, and prepares to continue on his way.
“Do you like pretty girls?” says the pimp, following him at a slower pace than he is setting, with the utmost surety that he will be listened to. “Do you like them meek or feisty? For the former, I have demure Greek virgins, snatched from the coasts while gathering flowers, like Proserpine. For the latter, fierce Libyans captured in war from the tribes that send even their girls into battle. Or if a little boy would be more to your taste, something very fine and very rare: a selection of the exotic half-Persian, half-Greek youths whom Alexander intended to train for his wars–”
“Well,” says Hannibal, rounding on him, “you’ve enticed me. Perhaps I will come take a look.”
The pimp smiles wide, and ushers him into the building he had been hovering around. Hannibal makes sure his coins knock against each other in their pouch, and the man even invites him into his private room for some wine before the grand tour.
As it turns out, there is something to his taste, and he doesn’t even have to leave the flesh-merchant’s office to find it. He brings it back to Wel, cooks a lavish dinner in the little house near the palace they’ve been given for the visit, and decides that he likes Memphis.
“Never thought I’d go to one of these again.”
“What, a party? I shall have to try harder, if no gathering I have hosted since we arrived in Carthage rises to that distinction.”
“No,” Wel scoffs. Hannibal knows perfectly well that he means a Greek-style banquet, with all the stupid couch etiquette and arguing over wine ratios that entails. The wine ratios don’t matter; if the wine is weaker, the dolts will just drink more of it.
During The Campaign– which is what everyone calls that time, as if there had never been a military campaign before Alexander’s and never will be after, an emotionally true proposition even if an obviously objectively false one– Wel had worn Greek clothes. He hadn’t felt the need to stand out any more than necessary, and unlike the Persians and Scythians, he had never worn trousers before and had no particular need to feel cloth swishing between his legs.
Now, he wraps himself in a skirt of gauzy linen with expensive embroidered borders, and leaves his chest bare except for a gold necklace. Finally, he wrangles his remaining hair– he had not shaved it entirely off, a concession to Hannibal’s tastes that he is long past questioning– under a braided wig. Alexandria will be a Greek city, but for now they are still here, in Memphis.
Wel had come here as a guest. But today, venturing out into the market of the city that had once felt so overwhelming he had been convinced that he could never live among a crowd, something felt different. For one, he felt different; he had learned to thrust away the intrusions of the minds of others and focus on the visions that mattered, during The Campaign. For another, Hannibal was beside him, looking to him for translation, explanation of the local gods, asking about the history of the city. It was then he’d decided to stop at a barber for his hair, to buy the wig and the clothing.
As they talk in Greek about all the books that will one day be translated into their final form in Greek, as they eat wheat bread when they’d first bonded in friendship over barley, as they plan for the grandest city in the world on a site that Ramses the Great had traded from long before there was a kingly dynasty to unite the tribes of Macedon– Ptolemy’s Greeks, Wel had decided, will be reminded that they are the guests.
Wel greets Ptolemy in the Egyptian fashion of meeting a Pharaoh, a prostration. Hannibal greets him in the Carthaginian fashion, where men admit no kings and have a tendency to kill anyone who tries to become one– a brisk nod, and a slap on the shoulder. It seems to be understood, at this makeshift court, that each man must adhere to his own customs, and not interfere with those of others. So perhaps something was learned from the campaign.
There is no time for involved conversation, however; this is an important banquet. An enormous hall is set with so many couches that the men on one side of it will certainly be unable to hear the conversation on the other side; the women, too, since Thaïs sits at the end of Ptolemy’s couch and many of the other Greeks have courtesans or perhaps even wives or mistresses sharing their tables. The places, however, have been assigned, and presumably with care. This is after all more or less an academic function; proof of concept, a demonstration that a king can gather together all the best minds in the Greek world under one roof, and not have the evening end in brawling.
Wel has been seated beside a Greek who, in fact, speaks Greek rather crassly: he is from Ephesus. Zenodotos has no interest at all in knowing that Wel has in fact been to his hometown, albeit only on a brief shore leave.
“Boring place,” he says, waving Wel’s attempt at common ground aside. “Now, tell me. Your oracle: how do you organize your books?”
Wel stares. “Organize our books?”
“Yes. Your books, that tell you how to interpret the will of the god– under what system do you organize them, and do you tag them?”
“We don’t need books to tell us how to interpret the god,” says Wel, feeling suddenly the need to defend his childhood home and thus slipping into the present tense as if it still belonged to him. “We keep the knowledge in our minds, and teach it to the next generation as it was taught to us. It’s too easy for the text of a book to be corrupted by an opportunist. But nobody would dare alter the teachings they hold in their mind, for fear that a corruption would invite in forgetfulness. And– tag?”
Zenodotos clucks. “That’s no way to run a productive business,” he says, launching into his next point before Wel has time to point out that an oracle isn’t a business. “You must write these things down; and then you must add a tag to the end of each scroll! That way, you needn’t waste time opening a work in order to know what’s inside it.”
“I don’t think,” says Wel, with the cold sinking feeling of a prophet making a statement he knows to be untrue, “that will catch on.”
It is near the end of the banquet; or what must surely be the end of the banquet if anyone is to get back to their beds unassisted, which judging by the number of servants quietly making themselves available, perhaps not too many are going to be doing. Hannibal is still within range of making it on his own. Probably. If Wel is soused, he will make a miraculous recovery from his own alcohol consumption to be able to assist him. If Wel is sober, his own condition will likely suddenly worsen, and he will need to lean on him extravagantly the entire way home, listing to the side like a ship that’s sprung a leak.
“Hannibal,” comes a voice. Female. Somewhere above his couch. “Hannibal, Hannibal, Hannibal. You are drunk.”
Hannibal tries to remember the age-old retort of the Macedonian soldiers to their wives: “Ah yes, but you, Madam, are…” he stumbles. “Very beautiful. And I shall be sober in the morning.” It doesn’t quite work without the insult. And yet, nobody on earth could call Thaïs ugly; and certainly not Hannibal, who never lies if he can help it. In middle age she has not lost beauty, merely gained stature. She looks regal. And indeed she is very nearly the Queen, at least in powers, though her origin would make it impractical for her to hold the position officially. Still, she had always done quite well enough with unofficial power, and it seems she has carried on the pattern.
“You will not be sober; you will be hungover. Is your little Egyptian kind to you? Will he take care of you? You always did have such delicate emotions.”
Hannibal tries to come up with a dignified response to that insinuation, but probably he is too drunk. He would like to think he would be able to if he were sober, surely. Instead, he just manages, “…yes. Very kind.” Also exceedingly cruel, and everywhere in between, but Thaïs was a courtesan, and that means a politician, and that means she hears the things not said almost as well as a prophet does.
“And Ptolemy?” Hannibal asks. “Is he…?” He’s not sure what to ask. Pharaohs are not supposed to be kind, and she doesn’t require kindness in any case. Then he finds his tongue again, and asks the right question: “Are you kind to him?”
“Always,” says Thaïs, and leans in close. “He’s convinced this whole thing was his idea. He’s a sweetheart. Don’t tell him.”
Thaïs destroyed the library at Persepolis for the sake of her name living on in infamy; and now she is building another, grander, and her name will never grace it. Hannibal places a fingertip over his lips in promise.
Chapter End Notes
Churchill WHOMST I’m sure this would have sounded better in Greek
The morning is cool, but the day promises to be hot. Thaïs had been wrong: Hannibal is not hung over. He is something else.
They’d slept on the roof of the guest-house, as the Egyptians do in the summer. Most, however, have awnings built to shield their slumbering forms from prying eyes; this house, belonging only to various guests of the Pharaoh, has not been fitted out with one.
Which might make this slightly for difficult than it would be otherwise. But not impossible.
Wel’s back is towards him, the curve of his torso rising and falling gently. His skin seems to glint gently in the light of the rising sun. Hannibal twists towards him slowly.
Wel comes awake when Hannibal’s arm is around him, not in a start but as a simple and uncomplicated transition of states. The first conscious awareness he has must be, as Hannibal intends, the erection pressed into his lower back.
“Good morning,” says Hannibal. “Tell me, what’s your favourite place in this city?”
“Don’t have one,” says Wel. “I’ve only been here once before, and I spent the entire time freaking out.”
“Hmm. That’s a pity.” Wel only notices now what Hannibal is doing, which is fisting his cock in a handful of spit.
Wel twists around. “Hey, fuck, don’t–”
Hannibal rubs over his hole with the spit-slick fingers, and Wel turns back to stifle a groan in his arm. Unconsciously perhaps, he rolls his thighs inwards a tiny bit to spread his cheeks more to Hannibal’s hands. “We’re on the roof,” he groans. “Someone’s going to see. Ptolemy could see, if he looks out the right palace window.”
In answer, Hannibal pulls the light piece of linen that they had discarded from overtop them during the night and pulls it back over them. Wel snorts. “Right. That’ll fix it.” But he takes a deep breath in as Hannibal lines himself up, getting ready to accomodate the intrusion into his body.
Hannibal pushes. The head of his cock goes in, deliciously slowly. He lets Wel wriggle around a little to get accustomed before he starts pushing in farther.
“If you had had a favourite place here,” Hannibal says conversationally as he gives steady pressure to his invasion of Wel’s body, “I would have fucked you there; so that every time you think of it, you think of me. Instead, we shall have to make do.”
Wel moans softly. Hannibal takes that as permission to shuffle closer, get him nearly onto his stomach, and fuck harder. Certainly, nobody who happened to look over and see the sheets moving would mistake what was happening. Fortunately, this is no longer a Persian country, and neither Egyptians nor Greeks are prudes.
He hasn’t, he reflects, given Wel any hint as to Hannibal’s own favourite place in Carthage. He will have to be on his guard; and then, strategically, not on his guard. Wel’s retribution is no longer of the deadly kind, but it will come eventually.
“Come in, come in. No, don’t do that silly bowing thing in private– you look ridiculous. Well, all right. Just be glad your knees still bend like that, one can tell you weren’t a soldier. Rise, Wel. Hannibal, you sly fuck, how are you. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you two made it in time. Let me tell you, it would have really put a damper on my mood if you’d died in a shipwreck just for the sake of my little party, after– well, after everything. Come, sit down. Beer?”
Wel accepts a beer, mostly because he’d forgotten until this moment how the Macedonian generals talk once they’re in private: like little boys parodying adult speech, having learned adult speech only from an unholy mixture of Homer and Aristophanes. Also, they only have two subjects: war and sex. War hasn’t touched touched Egypt ever since Ptolemy extended its boundaries to Syria and then declared himself content; there are yet more generals from the campaign squabbling over Persia, but it seems far away.
It’s the other subject that Ptolemy chooses. “So then: your wives. How are you finding your reunion? Do they please you? Have you children yet, Wel?”
“One,” says Wel, and despite the vaguely lecherous tone of the question, he finds himself proud to report it. “Yes, she pleases me. We are well-suited. She has…” he tries to think of a word appropriate to say in front of a Pharaoh. “Other interests. As do I,” he continues, and Hannibal completely ruins the decorum by smiling as big as he ever does, showing the tips of sharp teeth. “We please each other most in friendship. She would remind you, perhaps, of Thaïs.”
“Thaïs still pleases me in more than friendship,” Ptolemy leers, but it is more a defense of her honour than anything. Everyone in Memphis has been extremely eager to tell the visitors how Ptolemy has fallen for his wife Eurydike’s handmaiden and is considering marrying her. Thaïs had done well to ensure that her main position was that of trusted advisor; she is seemingly the only person in Egypt who doesn’t care. Like the Persian ladies of old, she controls the administration of the entire kingdom. Like the Persian ladies of old, she prefers to fuck other ladies and eunuchs when she isn’t being paid for it.
They don’t talk about Berenice. Ptolemy is, perhaps, unsure of their loyalties when it comes to his wives; instead they talk instead of the past, for their loyalties there are clear. They were loyal to Alexander, who desired to be buried at Siwah, but must be content with Alexandria instead; and so, in the end, what they were truly loyal to is Egypt.
Egypt has a tendency to reward those loyal to her. As he sits sipping beer, in a cool palace on a hot day, Hannibal taking charge of the soldierly jesting and leaving Wel to relax– he can’t help but feel himself rewarded.
“And then, says Wel, “this distinguished old poet type reaches for the first heavy object he can find, which happens to be one of those wooden dongs they use for the festival dances– you know the type? And fucking smacks him across the face with it.”
Mismalka thrashes her head, making a sound that would be a howl of laughter if she allowed it to emerge full-throated from her body, and is more like squeak as it is. Hannibal the Younger, snoozing on her chest, opens and closes his tiny fists, indicating the first hints of displeasure at the interruption. Wel grabs him gently and places him on his own chest while Mismalka gets a hold of herself.
“So basically, these Greeks are complete fucking animals,” she says when she more or less has, “and they think they’re going to build the biggest and best institution of learning the world has ever seen.”
Wel shrugs. “I’ve heard crazier plans,” he admits. “And a lot of them aren’t really Greeks, they’re Macedonians, which is worse, because they’re convinced that only completely crazy plans have any hope of success.”
“Well, good luck to them.” She pushes herself up onto her elbows, and kisses him gently on the forehead. “I’m glad you came back.”
“Are you?” Wel pushes himself up as well, settling the baby in between them. “No fantasies about becoming a shipwreck-widow? Come on, you can tell me.”
Mismalka touches a fingertip to their son’s hand, and he unconsciously opens his palm to grip it in sleep. The mood is suddenly no longer light. “No,” she says. “No, I think it’s better this way. And you? Dreams of fever ravaging Carthage in your absence?”
“No,” says Wel definitively.
She picks up Hannibal the Younger and places him on the floor in a little nest of blankets; then turns back to Wel. “Then,” she says, “I think you had better get your cock out before the baby wakes up. My monthly bleeding stopped six days ago, which the medicine women say is the best time.”
Wel blinks, opens his mouth, closes it, then opens it. “Isn’t it a little… premature?” he says, hardly needing to point out the baby on the floor.
“Jezy’s mother says it’s better to have as many as you want all in a row. Like Scythian arrows. Bam, bam,” she says, making little finger-bows to shoot him in the face with. “Unless you wore the thing out, in Egypt?”
“I did not,” he insists, laughing and rolling over on top of her. He considers adding, but does not, that Hannibal had for some reason desired only to fuck him the entire time, so his cock had not really got much of a workout at all. It seems probable that this is not the sort of thing she wishes to know. He, after all, has no idea upon what occasion Jezy’s mother had given this advice to her daughter’s friend.
Hannibal leaves him alone for half a day, which is probably the most Wel can ask.
He’s sitting on the wall of the citadel, a restricted area that he only can only use because the priests like him. He both is and is not one of them, so multiple temples have taken to handing him odd jobs. Wel, can you choose a perfect ram? Wel, can you say an Egyptian hymn over this fire? Wel, will the weather be better in six days’ time, or eight? He does the best he can, and says honestly when he can’t. He can see better than other people, in small ways that may be prophecy or just astuteness. A willingness to interpret the evidence. Far from Siwah, with no Pharaoh hanging on his every word, the god rarely disturbs him with visions. Wel hopes that means that nothing particularly noteworthy is going to happen to him or anyone he knows, ever again.
Which is why he is here, sitting on the high walls of the citadel on the hill, staring out at the sea on the horizon. Hoping that if he needed a vision, Ammon-Re would send him one; and the fact that he sees nothing but the sea, dancing and churning like his fears, is an implicit vision that his fears are baseless.
“So?” Hannibal is here. Who had let him up here? Well, it’s not like nobody knows of their friendship. If he’d wanted him kept out, he should have told the guard so.
Wel sighs. “It’s not like you to be self-sacrificing,” he says.
“I have no plans to sacrifice myself to anyone but you,” Hannibal says smoothly. “Have you seen otherwise?”
“No,” Wel admits. “But you just–” he wasn’t going to say this part. He wasn’t. It sounds petulant. “You’ll be away,” he says softly.
Hannibal sits down next to him, stares into the distance and lets Wel look at his face. He looks, Wel thinks, older. He looks like he is struggling to release something. “Say it,” Wel demands.
“I don’t know that I have a choice,” says Hannibal, and whatever Wel was expecting, it wasn’t that. Perhaps he was expecting, I just want the chance to fuck some beautiful young Balearic slingers. Or I have to prove that no god can kill me. Or even I just love killing, Wel, and need to go to wherever the most of it is happening.
“The grandson of Hanno the Navigator is leading the expedition. He asked me to come, as an honoured leader who has seen more of war than any citizen, during the assembly of aristocrats. There would be… social consequences to my refusal. Not just for me.”
The problem is love. The problem is family. The problem is Wel, and Mismalka, and Hannibal the Younger, their vulnerability. It’s not the kind of problem Hannibal can body-count his way out of. Or rather, he can, so long as he does it in Sicily, in the war.
The wild rocking and sloshing of a trireme caught in a storm is bad. The rocking of the boat suddenly ceasing, while the storm rages on, is worse. A suddenly still boat is still because it is being stabilized by a belly fully of water.
The Phoenicians have been arguing for centuries about whether it is true that a sinking ship pulls down anyone left on top of it with great force. Since many sailors don’t know how to swim, the question is mostly academic.
Since Hannibal does, he decides not to risk it.
As he hits the water, he thinks of Crimisos, and wonders idly why this sort of thing keeps happening to him.
Either a few moments or an entire lifetime later, the storm is over, the number of Carthaginian triremes is half what set out from the city, Worse, the number of store-ships is reduced by more than that. Hannibal floats on his back, a less tiring position than treading water. When an extant trireme draws close, presumably with the intention of recovering his body for rites, he raises a hand and waves. Someone on board screams, and he grabs on to this fleeting amusement and uses it to rebuild some semblance of a public face.
Most of the sunk ships were the ones containing the one thousand Carthaginian nobles. Practically, they are no great loss either in numbers– they were a token contingent– or in training, of which most had none. As always, Carthage’s military strength on land is borrowed from Libya, and most of the ten thousand Libyan soldiers are alive, if shaken. The result for morale, however, is a different story. A battered-but-not-sunk trireme is dispatched back to the city, to carry the list of men whose bodies were found in the water, and men whose bodies weren’t found at all. The city will enter public mourning: the shining walls draped with black sack-cloth.
Hannibal’s name, of course, is not on the list. Not only that, but he likes to think that Wel would know if he were dead. He likes even more to think that Wel would simply drop dead at the same moment, if they were to die apart, and vice versa. It is a romantic notion. And yet he had watched very nearly the exact thing happen to Alexander. Perhaps the gods were only warming up their aim, with him, and in the future they will be true, and strike down lovers at the exact same moment.
Wel must know that he is alive. He must.
They sail on to Sicily.
“Swear to me that he isn’t gone.”
The walls are thick enough for them to walk three abreast, which they do. Jezy keeps trying to hold Mismalka’s hand, or pat her back, or lean into her and get her friend to lean back. For once, Mismalka only has eyes for her husband. Wel isn’t sure he likes it.
He isn’t sure he likes it, and he isn’t sure that the person he is right now, whittled down by fear to the very essence of his being, is suitable to be around anyone but Hannibal. He can’t stop himself from saying what he would say to Hannibal. And that isn’t fair, but none of this is fair.
“Why?” he asks. “Everyone loses their father, sooner or later. Surely, it would be an honour to for him to have died in a war expedition. And not only that, it saves you the trouble of caring for him in his old age.”
Mismalka takes a large step to get in front of him, and slaps him across the face.
Another instinct that he ought to let loose only with Hannibal: he grabs her wrist, face stinging, and pulls her against him. Jezy glances nervously around, and Wel is vaguely aware of her concern, but it seems far away from him. “I ought to beat you,” he growls.
“Fucking do it.”
The game, such as it was, pales. He doesn’t want to. He would beat Hannibal and they’d both enjoy it. The thought only makes him feel vaguely nauseous.
They both only want one thing. For different reasons, but must he understand hers? She’s known her father since she was a child. He’ll never understand that. He’ll never understand it, but he’s self-aware to realize that he’s jealous of it. He wants to be the only one to know Hannibal, to ever have known it. Right now, he’s the only one who knows that Hannibal is alive. He wants to cling to the privilege.
He forces himself to let go, a fall nearly as tangible as if he tipped himself over the black-coated walls of Carthage. Except it doesn’t have a grisly end; there is no impact. “I swear that he’s alive,” says Wel, and it feels like he’s resurrected Hannibal himself.
This, Hannibal thinks, is the fun part.
He hadn’t expected a rout. In fact, when the Greeks had finally broken the uneasy inaction of both sides being unwilling to commit to crossing the river, he’d assumed that the bad omens were true, and they were all going to die. There wasn’t even time to get into formation; so worse than that, they were going to die disorganized.
Instead, the slingers earn their keep, and a Libyan ship bristling with fresh spearmen shows up, and the Greeks run.
Pursuing during a rout is one of the unparalleled pleasures of war. Everything about it mimics the hunting of animals perfectly: the thundering of hooves, the smell of fear, the way the fastest of the prey run, the strongest of them turn and fight, and the most cowardly freeze or hide. Except it is human beings, not animals, and that is even better.
Being pursued, of course, is the worst thing that can possibly happen, the ultimate failure of a phalanx. In the ten years of The Campaign, it had not happened once. Hannibal would have been displeased if he had died of a would to his back, after having spent so long among men who would welcome death only from the front.
Now, he pursues the prey. The infantry are trailing behind the cavalry, each step laborious in the mud churned up by hoofs. It is the middle of a hot day, and their role is mostly to mop of the stragglers left behind by the cavalry; they walk, not run. Hannibal picks out Greeks who seem more or less still functional– hunting lame animals is uninteresting– and dispatches them with pleasure, experimenting with patters of blood spray.
Eventually, the fleeing Greeks get tired. Greeks are still mostly citizen soldiers– having apparently learned nothing from their half-barbarian cousins in Macedon– and they aren’t build to withstand hardship. They stop and drink from the river; which is, for some reason, salt water. Perhaps it is only salt water for this month, the little joke of some vengeful, Greek-hating god. Hannibal spares the ones who are drinking deep of the deadly water, which will kill them of thirst faster than no water at all. Watching men greedily slurp their own death has its own sort of fascination.
So he’s off his guard, not paying attention, when he walks by a body by the riverbank that he assumes to be dead. It’s not. It’s alive, and it grabs at his legs and slashes at his ankles with a knife, sending a burst of white-hot pain across the spot on both feet where Thetis held her son in the Styx.
Hannibal curses, and falls, and drives his short-sword through the man’s neck, but the damage is done. There is no chance of him walking back to camp. He lies down by the river, waiting for the cavalry to finish up the massacre and return this way.
“Where the fuck have you been? You said you’d do this every day.”
Wel shuffles his feet in the dirt. The altar of Melqart is older that the other temples of the city; a small stone building with packed dirt floors and a hole to let the smoke out. It smells like being underground “Sorry.”
“No excuse?” Mismalka demands.
“No.” The reason Wel had missed their daily sacrifice for Hannibal’s safety for two days in a row is that he’d been in bed, dreaming of Sicily. He’d watched Hannibal rout the Greeks from the river they’d been camped at, cutting people down while wearing a crueler version of the battle-smile that Alexander had been known for. He’d watched him get the tendons in his feet cut– stupid, he should have watched where he was walking instead of watching the enemy drinking contaminated water like an Athenian watching the final act of one of their tragedies. He’d watched him being carted back to camp and discharged back to the city to bring the news.
But that’s a good reason, not an excuse, which isn’t what she asked about, so he keeps it to himself. Correctly, since his open penitence seems to improve her mood, which has been short. She has something she isn’t telling him, too. He doesn’t demand it.
“Three handfuls of incense, then, for days missed,” he says, and because old habits die hard and a prophet can’t pass up an opportunity to be at least a little dramatic, adds: “the thing you ask of the god is close at hand.”
Wel’s back hits the wall with a thud, but Hannibal places a hand behind his head. It’s hardly necessary; Wel had grown his hair out while Hannibal was away. So that Hannibal could pull it when he got back, but also so that if he was wrong and Hannibal didn’t come back, he could cut it off raggedly with a dull knife, and in the absence of a body to bury it with, bury it with his own body, on his chest as it should have been on Hannibal’s.
But he had been right.
The two harbours are full of fog today, so think that nobody had even known a trireme was coming in until the dock workers sent off messengers with the news. Wel had been there, on the wall staring down into the harbours simply because he’d had a cramp in his foot, and figured a walk was necessary to work it out. If he had the use of his mouth, he might amuse Hannibal with the information that, in his semi-retirement, his god has retreated from sending him earth-shattering visions to sending him helpful foot cramps.
He does not have the use of his mouth; Hannibal is kissing him so deeply it feels like he might actually be trying to stuff his mouth inside of Wel’s, teeth and all. This alley is filthy and smells like fish. Wel doesn’t care. It is perfect, unappealing and fog-coated and private and filthy.
“You need to get off your feet,” Wel says.
Hannibal doesn’t ask how Wel knows that he has a foot injury– another foot injury, since one has been weaker ever since the battle for Aornos Rock. He says “I completely agree,” and falls to his knees.
It’s not like Wel hadn’t known what was going to happen, so he just helps Hannibal push his clothes away and leans back to tilt his hips up as Hannibal sucks his cock slowly into his mouth. Not content just with that he pushes Wel’s thighs apart, trying to get him to curl his back even more, until he can reach his tongue just far enough to lick a filthy wet kiss over Wel’s hole.
“Fuck,” Wel whimpers, he should be beyond shock after all these years with Hannibal, but somehow he is still shocked both by the act and also by how incredible it feels, not sensitive in the same way as his cock but instead of a tantalizing hint of the pleasure that curls inside of him, waiting to be released. He wants to turn around and fully present his ass to Hannibal, but if Hannibal wanted his ass, he’d had positioned him that way in the first place. Hannibal wants him this way, so he must have him this way. Wel has decided that for the next little– okay, maybe the next few days– okay, maybe the rest of the day– okay, maybe until he wants something truly unreasonable– Hannibal must have everything he wants.
“Let him in,” Mismalka calls.
Her father enters. Alive, which apparently Wel could have told her days ago. She’d decided against slapping him when she found that out, since it would rather ruin the moment of what he had just found out.
The first time she’d told Wel she was pregnant, she’d thought his awe was just the reaction of a beginner who had apparently had no schooling at all in family matters. Now that he has reacted exactly the same the second time, she has to assume that there is simply something about the idea of his body contributing to new life that is fundamentally astounding to him. She can understand the sentiment, but she’s never met another man who feels that way.
And here is her father, who had given her books on how the Greeks chase their boy lovers with a knowing glance at her eye for pretty girls, and ensured by means known only to him that no man approached her rudely twice, and promised her a husband who would suit her when the time came, and traveled to the ends of the Earth to find her such a friend.
She is in bed for a dizzy spell, having woken this morning vomiting. It seems to clear as soon as he enters the room, though, and she jumps up from the bed and nearly jumps on him in an embrace before she remembers that his feet are barely learning to hold his weight again, let alone that of another person.
Two more people, technically.
She grabs his hand instead, and places it on her belly. She is beginning to feel kicks, but is unsure whether others can. Whether he feels it or not, he understands, and envelops her in his arms.
The air thickens with emotion as his hand slides into her hair to hold her cheek against his chest. She considers breaking the mood with a joke, perhaps some lewd comment about him coming back just in time to get Wel back now that he’s done his part– but decides not to.
“My daughter,” he whispers. “Mismalka. How I love you.”
She knows that he’s speaking only partly to her, when he says it. She’s always known that his love for her is shared, she has only inherited it from her namesake. When she was a child, she’d thought sometimes that her name and the love that came with it was tarnished by prior use. Now it feels like a fine old sword, or a king’s robe of state: something all the more precious for someone having cherished it already.
“Proof,” says Hannibal, “If one needs reminding in the face of the once proud generals squabbling like little boys, that the campaign truly happened. The world is larger than it used to be. As I waited to leave the island, there were merchants coming in. I bought this from a man who says that it came from the land beyond India.”
“There is nothing beyond India but Ocean,” says Wel, but it’s a quotation, the decade-old consensus of Alexander’s geographers, not a statement of fact. He picks up the small jar, pulls out the stop to smell it, and immediately pulls his head away. “What is that?”
“Apparently it is a wine made from rice, distilled until until only a few sips can knock a man flat.”
“I admit I don’t know. Perhaps it would be of use before a painful medical operation, in the absence of poppy-juice, but I can’t imagine anyone drinking such a thing for pleasure. It’s quite revolting, try it.”
Wel does, a tiny sip of the stuff burning his throat on the way down. It does taste terrible. However, there’s something about the burning sensation, the immediate effect of the stuff– well, he doesn’t hate it. He could get used to it. He takes another sip. It reminds him a little of a beer-brewing mishap in Siwah once; the village woman who made most of their beer had called friends to come try a drink that had been left too long, or perhaps been fed with fruit by her son, it was never clear what exactly the problem was– in any case, the stuff tasted nearly this sharp, and when she touched the flame of a candle to a puddle of it, it flashed hot and bright like oil before flaming out.
Hannibal raises his eyebrows. “I was going to suggest sacrificing the rest to Melqart, on the grounds that only a god could imbibe such a drink and survive.”
Wel snorts and puts the jar down, then is hit with a sudden wave of something very like nostalgia, even though it refers to something that had happened merely a few days ago. He hasn’t told Hannibal yet, that he and Mismalka had sacrificed to Hannibal’s favoured god (almost) every day. Wel had never been particularly interested in the cult of the god that he had most often, on the campaign, heard referred to as the Tyrian Herakles. But if there is anyone capable of protecting a Phoenician in Sicily, it is Melqart.
“Yes,” he says. “Yes. Although Melqart doesn’t always survive, that’s rather the point, isn’t it?”
“The yearly cycle of death and rebirth. The god dies, yes, but not for long. He is reborn in fire.”
Wel has a sudden image in his mind; one that comes not from his god, but very much from him. “I know how I want to do the sacrifice,” he says.
“Take this off.” Hannibal obeys without question, stripping off his tunic and loincloth. Wel watches, looking for new scars. Besides the two on the backs of his feet that have him walking with the aid of two sticks, there are none.
“Tell me about the egersis of Melqart,” Wel adds. “And lie down on your front.”
“There isn’t much to tell. No foreigner can be in the city for the duration of the ceremony. An effigy of the god is placed on a raft, set alight, and pushed out to sea. There is singing, and a feast afterwards. The fire does not destroy the god, but brings him new– Wel?”
Wel is tracing a finger over Hannibal’s back, not exactly sensually, more experimentally. It would be easy to wipe the alcohol off in a single flick, at this angle. That should be enough to disperse any danger. Like passing your hand through dancing flames of a sacrifice. Perfectly safe.
“Go on,” he says, and pushes Hannibal’s head down so he can only watch out of the corner of his eye. Then he reaches to the table beside the bed, and pulls the lamp towards him. This house is old, and there are a few lamps lying around where the oil-reservoir insufficiently curved around by the potter, and the fuel is prone to slosh around and spill. Luckily, this isn’t one of them; it’s good workmanship, only the wick poking up out of the vessel, the oil safely trapped inside.
“After the burning, the king and his chief consort are ritually married, representing Melqart and Astarte, providing fertility to…”
Wel has dipped two fingers into the jar of alcohol. He wonders for a moment if Hannibal will complain of him ruining something expensive with his dirty fingers. He doesn’t.
Wel swipes them across Hannibal’s back. There is a moment where the power of breath seems to desert him, everything hanging in the air, as he brings the flame close to the shining wet streak. Then a pale flame jumps from the wick to Hannibal’s back, and races across the length of the fuel. Just as quickly, Wel follows it with his other hand, wiping off the remnants of the drink of the gods so that the flame cannot spend too much time kissing the skin that should only be Wel’s.
Hannibal catches his breath like he wants to say something, but doesn’t make a sound. He is done talking, which is in itself a gift from some god. Wel inspects his back. There is no blister on it, no sign that flame was dancing over it except for, perhaps, a very slight reddening.
He adds more alcohol, then more fire; again a quick leap of flame, followed quickly by his soothing hand. Hannibal flinches away from it, and then stops flinching. He ought to take it well; after all, Wel had sacrificed for him (almost) every day. Now he is the sacrifice. How could he object?
Wel burns him.
He doesn’t intend to, which is the funny part. It had worked quite well, actually: the strong alcohol, distilled beyond the strength of any wine or beer available in the known world, burns quickly. The fire takes the fuel, not the skin of Hannibal’s back, and it is a strange and delicious feeling, to have fire dancing over him like a kiss.
Until finally Wel has put a little too much of the stuff in his mouth as well as onto Hannibal, and he doesn’t notice that it has dripped down Hannibal’s side and onto the bed, and when he touches the lamp to the alcohol to set it alight, it lights; not just a brief flare but a stunning burst of pain and light, searing his flesh, jumping down to the linen and smouldering there. For a timeless moment, it feels cold. Then it feels hot.
(Hannibal remembers, suddenly, a tale told about an oil called naft by the Persians, found at Babylon; a lad named Stephanos had been so certain that it could burn on his body without harming him that he had volunteered to have it rubbed on his face and lit. Stephanos was stupid, and is now ugly to boot. But that had been, after all, at Babylon; and Hannibal and Wel had been away. By the time they got back, courtly intrigue had moved on to rather more important matters.)
It is over quickly, judged by the standard of most other events. Wel throws a heavy blanket over him as he tries to roll away from the flame, and a jug of water overtop of that, and the flames are gone. But a large piece of real estate on Hannibal’s back, and a patch trailing down his side, are an angry red, and hurt with an intensity that is not likely to go away any time soon.
He buries his face in his hands, trying to simply breathe. He cannot yet– and perhaps not ever– even walk without his sticks, thanks to the slashed ankles. Now this. He suddenly feels very old.
He waits, wondering if Wel is going to apologize. He wouldn’t have, in the past. There is nothing between them that needs apology. But they have been getting more tender with each other, of late, their sharp edges wearing down like rock at the edge of the sea. He might. Hannibal waits for it, then decides he doesn’t want it.
“I’ll send for Anath,” says Wel eventually. A witch-doctor to whom Mismalka is partial; Wel trusts her more than the men who claim to have studied Greek or Egyptian knowledge.
He touches Hannibal’s shoulder, lightly, above the burn. It is exquisitely sensitive, a light fingertip that seems to sting and spark through his entire body. It feels a little bit like his very first memory of Wel, a light brush with fate that he had known even then would utterly destroy him, and that makes it worth it.
“Why did you choose this place?”
In Wel’s mind, Hannibal’s weak feet and blistered back are absent; he can stand and walk gracefully. More to the point, in Hannibal’s mind he can do those things. Which is where they are now; standing in the entrance, the atrium of the temple of Athena and Zeus on the acropolis of Rhodes.
It is, objectively, a modest temple, by the standards Wel has now. He has seen Memphis, and Susa, and Ekbatana, and Babylon. He has seen the ruins of the temple in Athens and the reciprocal ruins at Persepolis. He has seen the funeral pyres of Kalanos and Hephaestion and the bier of Alexander. For that matter, he’s seen the war-ships of Carthage, setting sail once again to Sicily. Next to all that, this temple seems a little… provincial.
“The main purpose of this place,” Hannibal says, “is to house the written agreements of the Rhodians with all the states they trade with. I was a young man when I first saw it.” Hannibal would never say and naive out loud, but Wel hears it.
He goes over to the wall, where there are surely more scrolls houses than could possibly exist in the real temple. There are empty shelves near the top, waiting to be filled in, and a ladder to reach them. Wel climbs it, and pulls out one of the most recent ones. It’s a drawing of him, ink on expensive vellum. Hannibal has painted him sleeping, nude, the soft curve of his buttocks lovingly rendered. That’s where the realism ends, however: above him crouches a figure with ram horns, plumes on his head, and the scepter. Besides the symbolism, however, it looks more like a particularly nasty hare than a god.
“Is this really how you picture him?” Wel asks, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth despite himself. It’s not like Hannibal hasn’t seen proper depictions of Ammon-Re.
“You appear sometimes as if you are being physically crushed. I suppose there might be something of jealousy in my rendering.”
Wel puts that scroll back, and glances down. He can see the very first scroll, the right bottom-most place; Hannibal has organized his memories in the right-to-left style of Phoenician writing.
He climbs down the ladder, and walks towards it. He half-expects Hannibal to reach out an arm to stop him. Either in violence, or to pull him into a kiss to distract him. He doesn’t. He lets him reach for it.
Wel touches the scroll that, he knows, must contain the death of Mismalka the Elder. He could look at it, the beginning of everything.
He strokes it with a fingertip, then steps back. “Show me the rest of the place,” he says.
He sees Mismalka’s death anyway. And not just the real death of the elder Mismalka; he sees his own wife tossed into the tophet as well. And himself, and the infant Hannibal, and Mismalka’s soul-friend Jezy, and the wet-nurse they have recently hired to help with the milking. There are other bodies in there, too; Wel recognizes some of the faces, and not others. He suspects that everyone Hannibal has ever felt a passing fondness for lies at the bottom of this pit of fire.
“This is going on in your mind,” Wel says slowly, “all the time.”
Hannibal seems surprised that he’s surprised. It’s nice, Wel supposes, that they still have the capacity to shock each other. Even better if the content of the shock is something other than their own capacity to betray.
Today it is just violence. Hannibal’s mind works along many paths at once; one of them, apparently, is the constant screams of the firey sacrifice in his mind. No wonder he feels the need to, well, externalize.
But Wel has one more surprise.
“Let’s go down to the water,” he says.
For all that they’re currently standing in what must surely be the most unpleasant room of Hannibal’s mind, this suggestion makes him seem uncomfortable. Wel knows there’s water down there; he’s heard it, felt it underneath his feet. And Hannibal thinks he knows what water it is. And he doesn’t.
“I do not often revisit the river Crimisos,” Hannibal says stiffly.
Wel holds out his hand. “But you will. Today. For me.”
Hannibal acquiesces. He grips Wel’s hand loosely, consciously so. Wel squeezes, giving him permission, and then Hannibal’s grip nearly crushes him. They descend through reeds and long grasses and then finally– sand.
There is mist around them, but it is not the fog that had coated Crimisos on the first day Hannibal had cheated death. It’s steam, rising from a serene pool of water with a sweet scent. A pool that is, famously, warmest at night; and here, it is night all the time.
Wel lets go of Hannibal’s hand, and dips his own palm in the oasis water. It feels exactly like he remembers it, warm and bracing in the cool of the evening. A reminder of the god’s ever-presence. And now, a reminder of Wel’s ever-presence, lurking beneath the floors of Hannibal’s mind.
And reciprocally: Siwah, the first water he loved, lives inside of Hannibal now. He has no illusions that he’ll ever see the real thing again. His home is here in Carthage, and here only, with Hannibal.