The travel-stained man stared glumly into his mug of ale, lifting his head to snarl at the innkeeper who jostled his elbow as he eased by.
Actually, it was his fifth mug of ale. He thought. "Another," he ordered tersely next time the man passed.
"Time to see the colour of your money, friend," the innkeeper said firmly, and the traveller's eyes narrowed in anger.
"I'm good for it," he snapped. Impertinent fool; who did he think he was talking to?
A heavy hand descended on his shoulder, nearly shoving his nose into his mug. "Iolaus, you old son of a goat! How the devil are you? Innkeeper, a jug of what he's drinking, and don't keep an Argonaut waiting, man!"
He turned his head sideways slowly to peer through oddly unfocused eyes at the hulking man who swung his leg over the chair next to him. "I don't remember inviting you to sit down," he said finally. The stranger laughed loudly, slapping his shoulder hard enough to jar his teeth, and his hand crept toward the dagger sheathed at his waist. The newcomer tossed the innkeeper a coin for the pitcher of ale he brought over, filling and consuming a tankard in one motion. Refilling both tankards, he drained off half before sitting back to regard his table companion with lowered eyebrows.
"I know it's been more than ten years since we've seen each other, but you look like hell," he said at last. "Hercules been keeping you up past your bedtime?" He roared with laughter at his own humour, and delivered another ringing blow to the other man's abused shoulder. His mirth ceased abruptly at the sting of a dagger's point under his chin.
"Touch me again and you'll be laughing through a hole in your throat," his erstwhile brother-in-arms hissed, and got up from the table. Weaving slightly, he made for the door, leaving the man to stare at him with a mixture of bewilderment and anger.
"What do you mean, he's disappeared?" Niobe demanded. Hector gestured helplessly.
"When he didn't summon me as expected this morning I inquired after him, Your Majesty. His personal servants told me he'd left orders not to be disturbed after ö " he paused, and coughed embarrassedly.
"After I left his chambers," Niobe prompted impatiently, and he nodded.
"I searched his room, and there's no indication of any struggle. His servants say the only things missing are some hunting clothes and his sword and dagger. Your Majesty was the last one to see him. Did he say anything, mention any plans?"
"If he had, I wouldn't be asking you, would I?" She softened at the look of apology on the royal advisor's face. "I'm sorry, Hector. I'm angry at him and taking it out on you. Well, we obviously can't let it be known that he's missing; Xenon and the other jackals would close in for the kill in no time. You and a handful of your most discreet men will have to look for him quietly."
She turned away, her mind already on ways and means of covering her husband's absence at court. Hector cleared his throat and she turned back to him.
"I'm sure Iolaus would be happy to..."
"No!" she said, too swiftly, she realised. "I don't want him involved in this."
Hector looked at her with understanding. "As you wish, Your Majesty," he said, and bowed his head at her dismissal.
"Orestes, what have you done?" she said aloud. She was surprised to discover that her anger at her errant husband was leavened with fear for his safety.
Several days later, the object of their concern was wiping his mouth with the back of a shaking hand, trying to rid himself of the lingering taste of bile and beer. It had been too long since he'd drunk such a quantity so quickly; he'd lost his hard head. Not to mention the contents of his stomach. So much for months of self-imposed continence, part of his remorseful campaign to live up to his cousin's macho legacy. He snorted bitterly. Much good it had done him. Niobe did her wifely duty, but only in his bed, never hers, so she could leave as soon as it was over. He'd begun to be eager for their silent couplings to bear fruit; then the farce of their intimacy could end. He wished with all his heart for a moment that she saw *him* when she looked at him. Maybe if she did he wouldn't have succumbed to this foul urge, and he'd be sitting with his feet up in his own palace at this very moment.
That's right, Orestes, he told himself with loathing. Blame Niobe, blame Iolaus; blame everyone but yourself, just like you've done your whole miserable life.
He spat again, and longed for a glass of water. One of the inn's denizens had told him Hercules was last reported to have been in Tygia. He had laughed at the idea of Iolaus losing track of the demigod, and was surprised when he was asked for directions to a village not 15 miles from where Iolaus had grown up. Orestes had thanked him and returned to his ale, ignoring all further attempts to engage him in conversation.
Fifteen miles. When had he last walked 15 miles? Never, that's when, and certainly not with a hangover. Sighing, he trudged toward the next village. If he was going to convince anyone he was Iolaus, he'd better start acting a little more like a hero.
Hercules heaved the last boulder into place and stepped back, and the torrent trickled to a stream, then stopped as the sweating men quickly chinked the spaces around it with smaller stones, then with handfuls of tightly packed moss. He straightened his aching back and wished Iolaus had come with him after all; his companion had gotten really good at loosening the knots in his overworked muscles. The back rubs were usually accompanied by lectures on how even demigods could overdo things, and that Hercules had to learn to say 'no' once in a while. As though he was an expert on the subject himself, Hercules thought, smiling. Iphicles had asked Iolaus to drum some martial arts into the thick skulls of his palace guard, and Iolaus had complained for half a day as a matter of form and left for Corinth, whistling. Hercules was delighted that his brother and his best friend had developed a relationship in their own right. Fighting back to back during the almost-debacle of their mother's wedding to Jason had cemented their tentative efforts at rapprochement following their less than promising first meeting.
At any rate, he would be gone for another week, and Hercules' back would have to learn to get along without him. At least the dam was finished. What next? Back to Thebes? Fishing? Hunting? None of these possibilities excited him. Maybe Iolaus needed some help with his lessons. He acknowledged the villagers' praise and gratitude, refusing offers of payment, but accepting dinner and a bed for the night. Someone asked after Iolaus and he responded absently, making note of a man he'd seen several times during the course of the day. He hadn't participated in the dam-building and spoke to no-one, only sidling within earshot when Hercules was asked about Iolaus. He saw Hercules' eyes on him and moved unobtrusively into the background, vanishing when Hercules sought him again.
Thank the gods. That *had* to be Tygia. Orestes' head was throbbing, his feet were raw and bloody where blisters had broken and re-formed inside his decorative, but completely impractical boots, and he'd never been so exhausted in his life. He didn't know how in Hades Iolaus and Hercules did this on a regular basis, and for that matter, he didn't care to know. He just wanted to get this over with and go home. Or not, depending on the outcome.
His arrival in the last village had been greeted with glad cries. A wild boar was ruining their crops, and had already trampled and gored their most skilled hunter. If anyone could bring the beast down, it was Iolaus. That was undoubtedly true, he'd thought. Too bad you people are stuck with me instead. He refused offers of bow and arrows, stifling the grin that rose unexpectedly to his lips. He still owed Hector one for that crack about frightening the deer to death. He hoped he lived long enough to pay the debt. Maybe Niobe would teach him how to use the damned thing one of these days.
He took his sword and his courage in his hands and pretended to track the boar, going alone so as not to betray his lack of hunting skill. With any luck, the boar would find him. After an hour of wandering he sat against a tree to await the animal's pleasure, finally dozing off. He awoke to find the beast staring fixedly at him from a distance of several feet, and wondered if he could get to his feet without alarming it. If it took fright he'd never have another chance at it.
He stood slowly, cautiously, bringing his sword in front of him, and waited. He wished he had the heavy, long-boled spear Hector had insisted accompany them on their boar hunts. Well, this was getting him nowhere; Iolaus certainly wouldn't stand here like the Sphinx waiting for the thing to attack him. He raised his sword and shouted, and the boar lowered its head, considered its options, and charged.
Orestes crouched, holding his sword at a slightly upward angle, and sent a fervent prayer to Artemis.
The boar's headlong rush pulled the sword from Orestes' hands; he leaped aside, narrowly avoiding the foaming tusks, and scrambled into the tree to watch its death throes with satisfaction. When its struggles stilled, he descended the tree and pulled his sword from the animal's heart.
It took him another hour to relocate the village, but his return and the boar's ears were welcomed with equal enthusiasm. Several of the men left immediately to retrieve the carcass, and Orestes was surrounded by well-wishers, some of them exceptionally attractive. He stood in the middle of that warm throng and understood two things: that they'd fully expected Iolaus to return victorious, and that the women were looking at him *that* way because of what he did, not because of who he was.
The first thing told him something remarkable about his cousin, something he'd already known, but had been too angry to acknowledge, in spite of his platitudes to Iolaus about gratitude and learning lessons. He hadn't been too ill to accompany Iolaus on his departure; one look at the way his wife had been devouring his cousin with her eyes, and he'd just been too damned hostile.
But Iolaus hadn't saved his life as part of some scheme to seduce his wife and steal his throne. Of course, Orestes knew that all along; it just suited his mood sometimes, after Niobe left his increasingly empty bed, to brood about it.
Iolaus had done it because that was what Iolaus did.
The second thing told him something remarkable about himself: he really *liked* this hero stuff. He liked the acknowledgement. He liked testing himself, and winning.
Maybe his thoughts about that peace accord weren't so far-fetched, after all.
Oh, gods ö was there a god of boots? -- just let him get these instruments of torture off his feet and sit down.
He limped into Tygia unnoticed, save for one man who watched his slow progress to the inn.
Please let this be Hercules, he prayed as the chestnut-haired man strode toward him and clasped his arm happily. "I was just thinking about meeting you in Corinth! Did Iphicles give you time off for good behaviour?"
"Hercules, is there somewhere we can talk in private?"
Hercules was looking at him far too closely. Orestes smiled and waved at several people who evidently knew Iolaus, and looked back at Hercules urgently. "Hercules, I really need to talk to you right away. Do you have a room we can go to?"
Suspicion and growing anger were darkening Hercules' eyes. Damn, damn, damn; he's on to me already. Orestes shifted in an attempt to ease the agony in his swollen feet and looked a mute appeal at the demigod, trying to appear as harmless as possible. Hercules frowned at him for a moment, then gripped his arm ungently and ushered him to a room on the second floor.
"Who are you?" he demanded as soon as the door closed behind them.
Orestes sank on to the bed and wrestled his boots off with a moan of relief. His feet looked as bad as they felt. He wiggled his toes, wincing, and looked up at Hercules.
"I'm Iolaus' cousin Orestes, and I need you to help me stop a man who's trying to assassinate him."
Hercules' hand closed over Orestes' arm again. "How do you know someone's trying to kill him?" he demanded.
"Because I hired him," Orestes said calmly. "Do you suppose the innkeeper would bring me a basin of water for my feet?"
Half an hour later Hercules was pulling the bandages angrily out of Orestes' hands and wrapping his blissfully clean feet. He was almost positive Hercules hadn't left any marks when he'd grabbed his throat, he decided, probing the affected area tenderly.
"You can't fight him yourself. You can barely walk," Hercules was saying. He had stopped shouting after Orestes had pointed out to him that he would put Iolaus' life at risk if the assassin was here and realised that Orestes wasn't Iolaus after all.
"I still don't understand how you could have done something like this after what Iolaus did for you," he added with disgust, tying the linen strips in place and rising from his knees to loom over Orestes.
"I have no excuses," Orestes said quietly. "There's nothing you can say to me that I haven't already told myself. I was jealous, it was that simple, and ugly, and shameful. He lived my life better in three days than I had in my whole useless existence, and I hated him for it. And instead of living up to him, I decided to get rid of him. And when you're a king, you can make that sort of thing happen very easily.
"I came after the assassin the morning after I hired him. I figured he'd find Iolaus by finding you, so I did the same thing. I've been pretending to be Iolaus in case I ran into him. He'll come after me, and I'll stop him, and he'll never get near Iolaus."
"You really think you've got a chance against a professional killer?" Hercules asked him scornfully.
"So he kills me. He'll think he's done the job he was paid for and he'll leave, and Iolaus will still be safe."
Hercules stared at Orestes.
"Iolaus never told me you were crazy," he said at last.
Orestes gave a ghost of a laugh. "I feel completely sane for the first time in my life. If I live through this, I'm going to be a king worthy of the title. No more self-delusion and self-pity." He rose painfully to his feet and Hercules reached for his arm a third time.
"I'll be at your back," was all he said. Orestes laid his small hand over Hercules' large one.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather Iolaus not know about this. I want a chance to get to know him better if I can, and something tells me he might not be as tolerant as you are," he said, looking up at Hercules hopefully.
Hercules smiled. "Frankly, I'd rather not have to explain to him why I didn't throttle you immediately. Your secret is safe with me."
Orestes grinned back. "Time to catch a killer," he said, squaring his shoulders.
Hercules hung back, watching the shadows as Orestes strolled into a cul-de-sac. The man who had shadowed him all day looked around, then followed Orestes, drawing his dagger; he and the king of Attica were circling each other warily with drawn swords when Hercules arrived in the tiny enclosure.
"He's not Iolaus, you know," he said. Orestes threw him an outraged look.
"Sure he isn't," the man sneered. His eyes darted to the surrounding walls, looking for an escape route.
"If I pay you as much not to kill me as you were paid to do it, will you walk away?" Orestes asked.
"What, and never get another day's work when word got out? Not likely," the assassin answered disdainfully. "So I don't kill you today. You can't hide behind your pal there forever."
"You're right," Orestes sighed, and drew his sword. He might not know how to shoot a bow and arrow, but he was a pretty damned good swordsman.
The assassin was not. His targets, as a rule, didn't come after him. When he realised that he might actually be killed himself, he began to fight dirty. Orestes gasped at Hercules to stay back; when he was finished, the assassin dead at his feet, he was bleeding from a dozen cuts. Hercules caught him just as the sword slipped from his nerveless fingers.
He seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of his short relationship with Hercules being bandaged by him, was his first thought when he regained consciousness. Hercules tucked in the ends of the cloth around his ribs as Orestes blinked up at him confusedly.
"There's someone to see you," Hercules said, and stepped aside to reveal the comforting form of his royal advisor.
"Your Majesty," Hector began punctiliously, then threw caution and protocol to the winds.
"Are you out of your mind, Orestes?" he bellowed. "You take on an assassin single-handed? What were you thinking?"
Orestes looked at Hercules, who shook his head warningly. So. Hercules hadn't told Hector the whole story. He smiled his thanks, and made himself more comfortable in the bed. Hector hadn't yelled at him like this since before the Coronation. In the formality that had descended on them since he'd become king, he'd almost forgotten how protective Hector had always been.
Hector paused to take a breath. "Let's go home, Hector," Orestes said.
He insisted on limping out to the horses under his own steam, and turned to Hercules. "Iolaus is a lucky man," he said, holding out his hand.
"Attica is a lucky kingdom," Hercules responded, his hand warm on Orestes' arm. Orestes swung himself into the saddle with some difficulty, stubbornly refusing all offers of help.
Hector heaved a long-suffering sigh. "He can't help it," Hercules advised. "It runs in the family."
Orestes smiled, leaning down to grip Hercules' hand once again. "I'd tell you to give Iolaus my best, but..."
"I think you already gave Iolaus your best, Hercules told him. Be well, Your Majesty."
Orestes turned his eyes toward Niobe, Attica and his future.
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