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The Roofs of Susa
In his message, Antinoes had not specified the place where they would meet. There was no need.
As she approached the summit of the tower, Lilah's heart began beating louder and louder. She stopped, closed her eyes, put her hand on her stomach, and tried to regain her breath.
It was not because of the dark, narrow staircase. She had found her way again easily enough. She had climbed these brick steps so often that it was no problem to find her footing. No, what made her breathless was the knowledge that Antinoes might be up there, on the terrace, waiting for her.
In a moment, she would see his face again, hear his voice, rediscover his gentle eyes and soft skin.
Had he changed? A little? A lot?
She had often heard women complain that when their husbands returned from the wars, they were like strangers. Even when their bodies were intact, they themselves had become colder, more aloof.
But she had nothing to fear. Antinoes's message was eloquent enough: The man who had written those words had not changed in any way.
She moved the gold and silver fibula that held her veil to her beautiful tunic, and adjusted her belt incrusted with mother-of-pearl. Her bracelets jangled, and the sound echoed like bells against the blind wall of the tower.
Lighthearted and smiling, Lilah climbed the last flight of stairs. The door to the terrace was open. The setting sun was blinding, and she shaded her eyes with her hand.
She turned, looking all around the little terrace.
No voice uttered her name.
No cry of impatience greeted her.
Disappointment pierced her heart.
Then she smiled with relief.
Beneath the canopy that covered most of the terrace was a low table heavily laden with goblets of fruit and cakes and pitchers of cold water and beer, and surrounded by thick cushions. A large red ceramic vase held an enormous bunch of pale roses and lilacs from the East, her favorite flowers.
Her disappointment faded away. No, Antinoes had not forgotten anything. Wars and battles had not changed him.
For their first night of love, he had covered their bed with rose petals from his father's garden.
SLOWLY eating grapes, which were transparent in the twilight, Lilah rested her elbows on the parapet surrounding the top of the tower. At this hour, when night was approaching like a caress, there was nothing more splendid than the view from this terrace.
Some hundred cubits above the River Shaour rose the immense cliff walls of the Citadel. The royal courtyard known as the Apadana was lined with marble columns, carved in Egypt and transported by thousands of men and mules; these columns gleamed like bronze flames in the sun, and themselves were surrounded by marble terraces even more vast than the palace. Giant sculptures of bulls, lions, and winged monsters guarded the Apadana, which was reached by flights of steps so broad and so high they could have held the entire population of the city. Few, though, were entitled to climb them.
At the foot of the walls, enclosing the Citadel like a casket, were the palaces of the royal city, with their many gardens. In a last flash of brilliance, the rays of the setting sun, reflected in the lazy meandering of the Shaour, came to rest in the gardens, fading amid the dense cedars and eucalyptus trees.
The royal city was encircled by a brick wall, pierced with small square windows and flanked by tall crenellated towers, colored red, orange, and blue in places, which separated it from the busy streets of the upper town. These streets, squeezed between flat whitewashed roofs, ran as straight as if they had been cut with a double-edged sword. They stretched far to the east, the north, and the southdark, crowded trenches that Lilah could barely make out from here. The hum of activity could still be heard: She imagined a mass of people in the streets, the awnings of the booths being lowered.
Antinoes' garden and house occupied a rectangular strip in the patricians' quarter, close to the royal palace. The garden was old and luxuriant. The elegant palms and cypresses lining the main alley leading from the outer wall to the house were as high as the tower itself.
A sudden sound made Lilah freeze.
The shadows were already lengthening in the twilight. She looked at the door leading to the staircase.
All she had heard was a slight rustling. But she knew he was there.
"Antinoes?" she called.
A face emerged from the shadows, a face she had so often evoked in her daydreams: the rather broad, hooked nose, the finely drawn nostrils, the tender, well-defined mouth, the arched eyebrows, the narrowed lids, the look in the eyes that made her tremble.
He uttered her name, very softly. "Lilah!"
He wore the dress of a Persian warrior: a short, close-fitting, long-sleeved tunic, purple with large fawn-colored circles, and equally close-fitting ankle-length trousers. The straps of his sandals were tied high up his calves. His belt was as wide as a hand, its gold buckle adorned with a lion's head. Three chains, of silver, gold, and bronze, linked it to a brooch in the shape of a bull's head pinned to his right shoulder. A felt ribbon embroidered with gold thread held his oiled and scented hair in place. A dazzling smile gleamed within his finely plaited beard.
He repeated her name, laughing now, almost shouting. "Lilah! Lilah!"
Lilah began to laugh, too. He held out his hands to her, palms upraised. She moved forward slowly and placed her palms on his. Antinoes' hands were hot. They closed over hers, and the mere touch was like an embrace. Antinoes' eyes gleamed in the setting sun.
"You're here!" she murmured, hardly aware that she had spoken.
He raised their entwined hands to his lips. He was still laughing, silently, as if he were out of breath. A caressing laugh, a laugh of pure joy, which enveloped them and carried them away.
They let go of each other's hands, the better to embrace. The laughter was swept away by their kisses. The kisses were swept away by their impatience.
For a long moment, the terrace around them seemed to contain the whole world. Susa had vanished. Time and troubles had evaporated. Only the deep, translucent sky of the dying twilight was still there.
They undressed, with all the clumsiness of long-separated lovers. Time, memory, impatience, and fear faded away in their turn.
Once again, they were Antinoes and Lilah.
THE silence of the star-studded night lay heavy on the city when, both out of breath, they untangled their limbs.
Here and there, torches glowed in the courtyards of the great houses. Naphtha flames, held in wide dishes, danced on the walls of the Citadel, as they did every night, forming a royal diadem hanging in the darkness.
Antinoes freed himself from Lilah's arms and stood up from the cushions. He groped for a little chest of apple-tree wood containing a flint and a touchwood wick. A moment later, a torch crackled into flame.
Lilah now saw clearly the body she had held in the darkness. Antinoes' waist was slimmer, and his high buttocks made two dimples in his lower back. During the years in which the war against the Greeks and the King of Kings' brother had kept him far from her, he had grown harder.
He turned as he slotted the torch between the bricks on the parapet, not far from the table still piled high with food, and she discovered the scar.
Antinoes smiled, with a touch of pride. "A Lydian sword at Carchemish. It was only the seventh time I'd been in close combat, so I wasn't very experienced. He was on the ground; I should have been more careful."
Lilah's fingers followed the twists and turns of the light-colored furrow in Antinoes' solid thigh.
He leaned down and seized her fingers, entwined them again with his own. "It's nothing. It took only a moon for the wound to close. Since then, I've only fought in a chariot. Where you're in a chariot, the enemy doesn't aim at the legs, but at the heart or the head. As you see, I still have both of those."
Lilah fell back, and stared up at the sky. "How many times," she murmured, "when the night and the stars arrived, I thought about that. Even though you were under the same stars, you were far from me, and I imagined you dying. Or you were seriously wounded, and you wanted to see me, but I had no way of knowing. A javelin went through you, and then the wax tablet informing me of your death went through me, too."
Antinoes laughed again. "It would never have happened. The Greeks and Cyrus the Younger's mercenaries learned to fear me." He kneeled, keeping a slight distance between them, and looked at Lilah in silence, serious now. "I know every inch of your face," he whispered, closing his eyes. "That was what I thought about. Your eyes, so black I can see myself reflected in them even by daylight, your lashes, your long straight eyebrows, as thin as a plume of smoke. Your high, stubborn brow, the brow of a young bull, your cheeks that blush both when you're angry and when I kiss them. I know every line of your mouth. I've drawn them a hundred times in the sand. The upper lip is longer and fuller than the other. A mouth so sweet, so alive, I can always tell what you're thinking."
His eyes still closed, he reached out his hand, trembling slightly. With his fingers, he traced the curve of a breast, glided over her belly, and stroked her hair, which hung loose down to her hips.
He opened his eyes. "In the last two years, I've seen many women," he went on. "The beauties of Cilicia or the northern Euphrates, the wives of the great warriors of Lydia . . . The more beautiful they were, the more they made me think of you. The more foolish or provocative, the more I dreamed of you. And whenever I happened to come across one who could compare with you, I was angry at her for not being you."
He caressed her gently, as if reinventing her body with his fingers, imprinting every curve, every inch of skin, on his palm.
"When I fought, you were with me. Arrows and swords could not touch me. The mere thought of your beauty protected me."
Lilah gave a throaty laugh, leaned forward, and embraced him, ready to kiss him again. She pressed her hard nipples against Antinoes' chest as if she wanted to be absorbed by him.
"I was never afraid when I fought," he murmured. "But every day, I was afraid you would forget me. Every day I dreamed you might forget Antinoes. The men of Susa would be mad not to see your beauty."
"So, we both felt the same terror." She bit the back of his neck, and he shivered. She laughed.
"Don't laugh!" he cried. "Now we're together forever."
For a brief moment Lilah froze at his words. But Antinoes' kisses wiped out the cold. Her belly was soon on fire again, as Antinoes' member swelled against her thigh. She gripped his shoulders and pushed him down onto the cushions, her love's warrior and her lover's enchantress.
THE moon was rising above the Zagros Mountains when she whispered that it was time for her to return home.
"Stay the night!" Antinoes protested.
She smiled, and shook her head. "No, not tonight. We're not yet man and wife, and I don't want Aunt Sarah to find my bedchamber empty in the morning."
"Oh, come on! Your aunt Sarah knows perfectly well that you're here, and she's delighted."
Lilah gave a little laugh and stroked her lover's eyelids, tracing his eyebrows with the tip of her index finger. "Then I'm the one who wants to get back to my bedchamber by dawn. Thinking about you, smelling the scent of you on my skin."
"You'll smell it all the better if you remain here. Lilah, why go? We've only just been reunited."
"Because I'm your lover," Lilah whispered, kissing his brow. "Your lover, but not your wife."
She started to move away, but Antinoes sat up and gripped her wrist. "When? When will you be my wife?"
She found it hard to meet his eyes. The darkness and the warm, flickering light of the torch made the shadows on his face seem harsher. She thought of how his face must look in battle.
"I'll go to see your uncle first thing tomorrow," Antinoes insisted. "We'll fix the day. As far as I'm concerned, everything is ready. I've made offerings to Ahura Mazda, I've left a tablet with your name on it for the royal eunuchs. You know that's the law for high-ranking officers. Now, the king and queen may oppose a marriage with . . . between a Persian officer and a non-Persian." He broke off with a grimace and shook his head. "Lilah, what is it? Don't you want to be my wife?"
"I want nothing else," she said with a smile.
"Then why delay?"
Lilah gathered her hair to cover her chest, and searched for her tunic among the cushions. Antinoes waited for a reply, but none came. He stood up abruptly and walked nervously to the parapet, barely illumined by the light of the torch. "I came back to be your husband," he said in a low voice. "I shan't leave Susa again until that house down there is your house." He pointed to the diadem of the Citadel, shining unperturbed in the night. "There, in a few days, I shall wear a helmet with red and white plumes and a leather breastplate with the insignia of the heroes of Artaxerxes. But without you, without your love and the thought of you, even a Greek child could vanquish me."
He spoke without looking at her. Lilah covered herself with her tunic. As she was about to hook the sides together, Antinoes came back to her and seized her by the arms.
"It's Ezra, isn't it? It's Ezra who's holding you back."
"I have to talk to him."
"Hasn't he changed? Does he still hate me?"
Lilah did not reply. She freed herself from his grip and hooked her tunic.
"Does he know I've come back?" Antinoes asked.
"No. I'm going tomorrow."
"To the lower town?"
Lilah merely nodded.
Antinoes grunted, and moved away from her angrily. "What a fool!"
"No, Antinoes, he's no fool. He does what he thinks is right. He studies and learns, and that's important."
An ironic look on his face, Antinoes was about to reply, but Lilah raised her hand.
"No, don't mock, that would be unfair. Soon after you left, an old man came to see him in the lower town.