They arrived early Friday evening, Giles and his three rivals, at the retreat outside Salisbury. There were always four candidates; the number was sacred for some reason they'd long forgotten. Four elders; four elements; four points of the compass; four candidates. The oracle chose four from the Hundred; Apollo chose one from the four; the next Potential watched while her new companion was dedicated to her service. It was how they had done it for time out of memory. And in this sacred place, at the shrine of Apollo, for over a thousand years.
Giles stood in the anteroom with the others, keeping to himself. This time his rivals were two other men and a woman. Giles knew their names, had chatted politely with them at other, more social Watcher functions. They were younger than he, as were all of the other candidates these days. They whispered to each other, exchanging gossip. Giles turned his back to them and remained mute. He'd be saluting one or the other of them tomorrow evening. He could not bring himself to say anything polite beforehand. They, for their part, didn't bother to draw him out.
He shifted unsteadily. They'd informed him early that he'd be a candidate this weekend, so he'd been fasting for three days already. He was lightheaded.
This would be the seventh time he'd undergone the ritual. Each time he'd watched while another candidate was chosen and given guardianship of a young potential. He'd given up hope after the fourth. He dared not let himself feel hope this time, odd occasion though it was. And it was odd: the girl wasn't a Potential, but already a full Slayer. A Slayer they hadn't found and raised. And what's more, a Slayer who'd already seen a Watcher die. There had already been two previous selection rites, over the last month. The god had rejected all four candidates each time. The gossip was, his rivals said, that the earlier candidates were relieved to have been passed over. No one wanted the post. It wasn't expected to last long, his fellows whispered. Either she'd die or she'd get another Watcher killed.
"Why not just let her go?" one of them said. "For the best."
There was a moment of silence, then an assenting murmur.
Giles felt anger flare in him, for a moment, at the attitude of his fellows. He said nothing, however. There was no point. They'd never been alone. They wouldn't understand the feeling, or the Slayer they were asked to serve. He felt sorry for her. It must have been awful to awaken to Slayer powers one morning without understanding what they were or why they had been granted. No one there to explain it and help with the adjustment. No one there to share the joy and the fear.
The door opened for them. Four young Watcher acolytes came through, university age, fresh-faced, all wearing neat white tunics. Three of the youths were the proteges of Giles' fellows; they went to their mentors and were greeted affectionately. Giles had no protege. He watched the fourth step forward uncertainly: a young man a trifle older than the others, with shaggy dark hair and startling blue eyes. Giles recognized him. Michael Robson, that was his name, the son of a Watcher who'd died in the field a few years back. His mother had died honorably and bravely, they had said.
The boy's assignment to Giles meant he had no mentor of his own. He'd be hoping Giles would take him on, as Giles in his place had hoped each of the Watchers he'd been assigned to would take him on. None of them had.
"Mr Giles, sir? I am to serve you."
Giles clasped the boy's hand briefly with chilly fingers. If the boy were disturbed by Giles' reserve, he did not show it. He got to work immediately, rapidly divesting Giles of his clothing and hiding it away in a closet. At the last, his glasses. The weekend would be fuzzy around the edges for Giles.
The four were then led away to the baths, where they were cleansed inside and out, gently but thoroughly, by their assistant. Giles had performed this service himself, earlier in his life, had visited indignities upon the trembling bodies of men and women, had washed them clean afterward with respectful hands. Being on the other side of the experience was harder, enduring the intimate touch and invasion, and the memory it evoked. In some ways this was the worst trial of the weekend. He closed his eyes and wrapped a fist around the bath rail, and concentrated on the translation problem he'd set himself at work. Mycenaean Linear B, and suitably mind-numbing.
"Are you all right, sir?"
He opened his eyes. The boy met his gaze with sympathy, which made Giles almost furious. "Yes," he said.
"I understand, sir. I'll be as quick as I can," said Michael, quietly enough that only Giles could hear him. Giles reluctantly gave him a tight nod. The boy only wished to help, and he seemed competent. It was over soon enough.
One of the men hadn't followed instructions and had neglected to remove all his body hair. The four assistants worked together to wax him swiftly and efficiently while he winced. He'd learn his lesson and have it done more comfortably next time. Giles had gone to a discreet salon to have it done, and got drunk on the red wine they'd plied him with. It didn't help the pain, but it did help him care less that he was about to have his heart broken again. He did rather like the sensation of bareness once it was all over. Of being completely naked, underneath his conservative clothing.
He'd never asked why they required it. Giles supposed the reason was symbolic. Some enforced humility, on top of the removal of all external props, all external signals of identity. Bodies cleansed so that their minds might be examined without distraction. They were stripped bare for the judgement of the god.
Stripped and primped. Washed and oiled, hair trimmed, chins shaven twice, fingernails buffed. Perfect offerings. Though not Giles. He was marred by the tattoo. They usually covered it up, when they were preparing him to be presented. But this time the boy shook his head when Giles indicated his arm.
"Sir, I have to think that the god knows better. Present yourself as you are."
Giles shrugged. It wouldn't matter.
At last they were ready. The assistants led them out and through the modern parts of the building to the older construction in the back, through to the enclosed amphitheater that was their main ritual chamber. Most of the buildings dated from the time of the Reformation, but the chamber was Christopher Wren, and one of his finest designs. The ceiling was glassed in, to keep out the rain but welcome in the sunlight sacred to the Watchers. A cunning lens focused the sunlight intensely into the circle at the center on cloudier days, so that the chamber was almost always a place of light.
Today it was lit by torches. Winter rainstorms had hidden the sun for days, and snow was predicted for the Solstice.
The four candidates were led to the dark circle, where they stood before the inner Council, the four men and women who led them. Quentin Travers himself gave them their instructions. They would be blindfolded and placed in the shrine of Apollo. At some point the god would give a sign that one of them had been chosen, or, more rarely, that all four of them were judged unsuitable for this girl. When the sign was given, the chosen Watcher would be dedicated to his or her charge, then sent to be with her. No one could predict what they would experience in the presence of the god, though it was often a mental or physical trial of some kind. One in a hundred years, a candidate would be found dead.
Giles let his attention drift. He'd heard it many times. Why they kept asking him to endure this, he couldn't guess. It was obvious that the god had rejected him utterly. He was marked by darkness and evil.
Michael held a cup to his lips, and Giles drank it dry. He didn't know what the drink was. It was bitter, and it made him dizzy. It altered his vision much as peyote had done, when he'd tried that, only without the vomiting. Quickly, then, before the drug had begun to take effect, they were led down to the shrine at the very back of the compound, against the hillside. Their path led them outside for a few hundred feet. A cold rain fell on them. Giles watched his breath plume out before him, and silently urged the procession to walk faster. These rituals had been dreamed up in warmer climes.
The shrine was old. It had been a place where gods had been worshipped long before the Romans brought Apollo to Britain. It had been a shrine to him for all the long years since: Britain and France had remained faithful to the old gods while Christianity spread south through Arabia and Africa. The Watchers had worshipped here for nearly all that time.
A natural spring bubbled out of the rock at the back and across the rock floor. It disappeared into a culvert built into the wall, where pipes brought the water to the fountain in the main audience chamber. A broad marble altar stood before the spring. Offerings to the god lay upon it, as well as the most sacred artifact in the Watchers' possession: a sword. Bronze, leaf-shaped, unknowably ancient. Apollo Phoebus Chrysaor himself had given it them. It was lethally sharp, or so the whispers said. Giles had never been close enough to it to touch it, and would not have dared to do so if he ever were.
It glittered in the torchlight.
They were, respectfully, gently, chained by their acolytes to the four pillars ranged along the far wall. Michael ran his hands over Giles' body, brushing him dry. He fussed over Giles' hair, pushing it back from his forehead. "There, sir, you're perfect," he whispered.
The four elders then made their invocation to the god, poured a libation, burned incense. At the last, the candidates were blindfolded. Giles heard the feet shuffling out, and the heavy thud of the great doors closing. Then the muffled sound of the bar across the door.
Giles knew what would happen next. He would fall asleep despite the chains, and be awakened in the morning by his acolyte. The chosen one would have had his chains unbound by the god; Giles and his two fellows would remain in their bonds. The acolyte would release him, guide him out of the shrine, remove his blindfold, and express his sincere sympathy and his hope that next time the Slayer would be the right one for him. Then Giles would spend the next two days incapacitated by a blinding hangover. His fellows reported dreams and fantastical visions. Giles had never seen anything he was unable to explain as a drug-granted hallucination. Not that he doubted the reality of the god. No sane human doubted the gods, not when they walked the earth. Perhaps he was simply unworthy of being visited by dream.
Time passed. Colored patterns danced across the inside of his eyelids. The rock against his backside gradually warmed enough that it was no longer uncomfortable. Giles drifted near sleep.
A Presence prickled at Giles' skin. He tensed. His chains rattled briefly and were silent. Whatever it was came closer. The hair on the back of Giles' neck stood on end. He'd felt this before, in two of the examinations, but whatever it was had never approached him.
His blindfold was removed. A handsome face was inches away from his. A young man, almost unbearably beautiful. He leaned forward and kissed Giles. Giles returned it without thinking, opening his mouth in desire. The youth pulled away and smiled at him. Then he moved away to contemplate the woman bound to Giles' left. Apollo, for it must be he, touched the woman's forehead.
Giles swallowed and tried to regain command of himself. He was grateful to be chained in place, for once, because it meant he needn't stand on his own.
The god was magnificent. Perfect. He had the compact build of a gymnast. Tight muscles moved under pale skin kissed to barest gold by the sun. He glowed in the darkness. He turned from the woman and crossed the room to consider the man on Giles' right, the unfortunate who'd come to the ritual unshaven. Golden hair curled over the god's neck and ears. He was nude, his heavy sex half-erect. His hands held power. Giles had never desired any man as much as he desired the god before him now. Longing and fear constricted his throat. His cock felt none of the fear, and let his longing be known.
Apollo stood before him again, examining him more carefully. His fingers brushed the tattoo of Eyghon at Giles' elbow. The touch burned Giles' skin. "Wrong god," he said, in the ancient language. The god's voice was high and lovely, a sweet tenor. He tapped Giles' chest. "You belong to me, not to any get of Dionysus."
Giles opened his mouth, but could not force out any words. Now Giles understood why he had been taught the ancient language from boyhood: so that he might speak to his god when this moment came.
"I have sent these others dreams. Do you wish to join them?"
Apollo looked down at Giles' erection. "You wish to serve me?"
"Yes, lord," Giles said. His voice croaked. If the god touched him there, he would likely die.
"In whatever way you ask. Though I should like--"
"Yes, little mortal?"
"If it's your wish, I should like to serve this Slayer of yours as well."
Apollo laughed in answer. He tugged at Giles' chains, and they unwrapped and fell to the floor. Giles fell with them.
"How would you serve me?"
Giles pushed himself up to his knees. The god stood before him. His cock was erect, a heavy column of gold rising from a nest of darker gold hair. Pale liquid dripped from the tip. Giles was breathless with lust. He found courage he hadn't realized existed in himself, and leaned forward to lick the head clean. The god's skin was hot against his lips. It tasted sweet, like nectar.
Apollo groaned. Emboldened by the reaction, Giles took the head into his mouth and slipped his tongue into the foreskin. He licked around the head, delicately then more confidently as the god made noises of the kind any man made when another man had his lips wrapped around his cock. Giles found yet more courage and reached up to take the god in his hand.
It had been years since he'd done this. Years since he'd touched another human being with erotic intent, longer yet since he'd touched another man. Years since he'd been given release in any way save his own hand. Everything he knew about giving head in his youth, every trick he'd learned on his knees at parties, in bed with his lovers, watching men and women go down on him, suck him with hollowed cheeks, Giles strove to recall now.
If there was a more pure act of worship, Giles did not know it.
The god dug his fingers into Giles' hair and began to thrust. The god pushed deep to the back of his throat, and held himself there. Giles swallowed around him and the god filled his mouth with seed. This was no bitter seawater. It was thick and sweet and sticky, burning hot. It tasted of amber and honey and saffron. Giles swallowed again, with difficulty, striving to give pleasure to the god with lips and tongue while he did so.
Apollo released his grip on Giles' hair and withdrew. Giles slumped to his hands and knees. His jaw ached, but it was a wonderful and once-familiar ache. He was still painfully erect. He did not dare touch himself.
"Well done, brave one."
"I thank you for the privilege, lord."
"I will give you more reason to thank me. Come." The god lifted Giles to his feet easily, and guided him over to the altar. On the altar were jugs of wine and olive oil, and a loaf of hand-baked bread. The god's hand on the back of his neck urged him to bend himself over the altar, then spread his feet wide. Giles gripped the far edge and braced himself. He strove to relax. He had seduced a god, and now he would learn what he had brought upon his head.
The sword lay alongside him. The edge was indeed keen.
Pottery clanked against stone. The god's hot skin brushed against his thighs. Warm hands stroked his back. Giles flinched. The god rubbed oil into his shoulders and down his spine, then further down. Giles concentrated on breathing, on controlling the tremor in his legs. The god's hands massaged him everywhere, along his flanks, down his thighs. His fingers were fever-hot. Giles trembled and waited. It had been so long, and he had been so afraid. And now he was shaking with desire for it.
Fingers circled around him and penetrated. He moaned and could not help pushing back into the caress.
"So eager," the god said, in that light sweet voice. Then his hands were on Giles' hips, and he was pressing inside. Pain and the anticipation of pleasure, the delicious burn, as the god slowly entered him. He was hot, almost painfully so, and larger than any man Giles had been taken by. Giles struggled to stay still, to open himself. He bit his fist.
"None of that. Cry out your pleasure to me, brave one. Praise me."
Giles let himself whimper, then, and groan, and writhe. Surely he would die. Surely the god would split him in two. It had been so long since he'd been taken, so long since he'd last felt this. Mind and memory overrode his body's instincts, and he began to remember this sensation as pleasure. Giles begged in English for more, all notion of respect and proper behavior forgotten in his need to be filled utterly. He forgot who he was, who was inside him, everything but the sweet pleasure of being thrust into by a beautiful man.
Giles existed only where the god touched him.
The god's moans grew uneven and hoarse. He came inside Giles the way a mere human might have: a last few frantic thrusts, then a moment of stillness. But the hand that closed around Giles' cock was inhumanly hot. Giles had no control, no desire for control. The god stroked him once, and Giles came instantly, endlessly, pinned in place by the god impossibly hard inside him. The god climaxed again, with a shout that Giles feared would bring the walls down.
The god withdrew from him. Giles remained where he was, half-sprawled across the altar. He felt drunk, dizzy, out of his mind. He wanted it again. He wanted to weep. He was weeping.
He felt himself lifted and eased down to the floor. Apollo held him almost tenderly, and encouraged him to lie back against his chest. The god leaned casually against his own altar. He held a bowl of wine to Giles' lips. Giles drank deep, obediently. Apollo raised the bowl to his own lips and emptied it. He refilled it from the jug on the altar. Giles calmed, and his mind began to work again, well enough that he remembered he ought to be afraid. It was difficult, though, with the god holding him close and caressing him.
"Listen, beloved. I have much to tell you, and very little time."
Giles craned around to look the god in the face, he was so startled.
"Ah, yes, you are beloved now. Since none of those fools would take you as theirs, I have made you mine. I will teach you all you need know for your Slayer."
"Lord, lover, I am honored." Giles' voice shook. No Watcher since the first had been taught by Apollo himself.
"They committed a great injustice against you. Any time they leave one of my sons and daughters alone to wander, as they left you, they anger me. They have forgotten why they live, whom they serve. Whom do you serve?"
"The Slayer," Giles said, instantly. "And through her, you."
"Yes. And all those who serve her are your brothers and sisters. Do you understand?"
All. His emphasis was peculiar. Giles let his head rest on the chest of his god, and struggled to understand. He thought of young Michael, stepping toward him uncertainly, with longing in his face. "I believe so, lord."
Apollo held the wine bowl for him again. Giles drank. "This Slayer is special to me. I will help her do great things. You must make her worthy of greatness. Hold her in your heart. Do you understand?"
Giles was puzzled, but said, "Yes, lord." Wasn't that always the Watcher's task?
"Now. I have given you the gift of interpreting prophecy and song in her service. I will give you many more gifts tonight, if your body can bear the burden of my use."
Giles was again uncertain this meant, but certain of what he wanted. "I beg you to use me as you need, lover. Do not spare me. For her sake, I'll bear it all."
Apollo laughed again. "Brave indeed. There has been no man for you since the demon, yes? I warn you. If you live, you will not have the heart for other men after me. You will only ever know your Slayer, truly, no matter whom you take to your bed. Only she will satisfy you."
Apollo reached down and idly fondled him. Giles spread his legs to make himself a better offering. The sensations were odd and new; he'd never had sex while waxed bare like this. He had no secrets; he was entirely exposed. He liked it. Though perhaps he would have liked anything that his god chose to do to him. Apollo's touch was strange, beyond the unnatural heat of his flesh. There was something else, a spark and tingle that sent his blood rushing and his head spinning. Unbelievably, he was hard again. He moaned.
"You've been holding yourself back, brave one. Denying yourself the pleasure of lovers. It's time to share yourself. Go out and bed women. Get children. I wish your name to flourish."
The god's hand was on him, and Giles could not think. He choked out an acknowledgment, then could not prevent himself from moaning again. Apollo lifted him as if he were a trifle and lay him down at the base of the altar. He held Giles close. Giles thrust himself between the god's thighs. His skin was slick with sweat. He had no idea of finesse or control. The god's kisses drove him half-mad with need. Quickly, too quickly, he spilled onto the god's thighs, shivering, breathless. He sprawled onto his back, once again shattered. The god rolled onto him and thrust against his stomach, and followed him.
Apollo rubbed the mess into the bared skin of Giles' stomach, then raised his hand to Giles' lips. Giles licked his fingers clean. Honey and saffron.
"The gift of tongues."
"In your seed? How? I mean, thank you, lover, lord."
Apollo fed Giles more. "Metaphor, beloved. Your ancestors learned virtue this way."
"Is this real?"
"Very real. Your body will remember me for some time. Your mind will forget."
"I do not understand..."
"You will understand it when you need." Apollo tapped Giles' temple. "I would know what you know."
He reached down and swiped his thumb against the head of Giles' cock and lifted it to his lips. Giles watched the god's perfect lips suck his own thumb. He wondered what it would be like to take Apollo, to be caressed by that perfect mouth. Not that he would ever be allowed. He understood now why they'd been stripped bare.
The god's expression changed. "You are the one for her, for my favorite. Enough play, my beloved. I will teach you more."
Giles endured, for hours or days or mere seconds, he wasn't sure. Apollo was methodical about it, careful to tell him what he had learned each time, and tap his temple with a finger. He was affectionate, but relentless. Giles was not conscious of learning anything, not aware of anything but his exhausted body, his failing strength. He supposed he ought not to be surprised to learn that the gods had sexual stamina to envy. If he lived to the morning, he would be sore for days.
Mortals were known to survive this, Giles reminded himself. Survive and bear heroes, if they were women. What life would take root inside him, if he lived to see sunlight again?
At last he lay once again cradled in Apollo's arms, back against his chest, and drank wine with him. Apollo fed him bread, and Giles felt his strength return to him. He had survived, and taken all that Apollo wished to give him. He drew a deep breath, and stretched. The god kissed his neck, then stood and walked across the shrine. He examined each of the sleeping candidates without touching them, then returned to stand before Giles.
"You have endured well, brave one. I have one last task for you."
Apollo crossed his arms. "Do you agree that your life is not yours any longer? That your life belongs to my Slayer?"
"Yes, of course my life belongs to her now. I am now dedicated to her, and all that I am is hers."
His throat was thick with emotion as he said it. It was almost overwhelming to think that at last his life's ambition was achieved, and the years of training would have had a purpose. He didn't know her yet, hadn't seen so much as a photograph of her, but he knew already he would love her. She was Apollo's favorite.
"Brave words. Let us see if you act on them. I will have your life, now, offered to me in the name of the Slayer you wish to serve."
Giles came fully alert. This was another trial, he knew. What did the god want of him? "What good would that do her? How can I serve the Slayer if I'm dead?"
Apollo's face was blank. Giles was not longer able to guess what the god was thinking. If indeed he ever had been. The pit of his stomach felt cold, and he remembered, too late, that the gods were alien, unknowable. But if he was to die, he would not die easily.
"Perhaps," Apollo said, "you would die that she might live."
"Then I will die with my blade in the throat of her enemy. But I see no enemy here."
"Perhaps it would please me to see your blood willingly offered to me, your flesh burned in my honor."
"Be pleased if you wish. It's barbaric, and I won't lie still for it," Giles said, in English, and from that moment he was an Englishman again, not a superstitious ancient, not a lust-struck boy.
The god rumbled in anger, and the floor of the temple shook. "Not even on pain of my displeasure?"
"No." Giles was on his feet the next instant, half-crouched, moving backward. He rolled and the god's fist-strike just missed him.
Giles took two steps backward, and felt the stone of the altar against the backs of his legs. He scrambled up and took the sword in his hand, without thinking. He bent his knees, weight centered and balanced, ready to intercept the god should he strike again. Who knew? He might be able to harm the god with his own sword, before he died, and that would be a feat.
The god struck again, and Giles swung the sword to intercept, to maim. But before the blade met sacred flesh, the god spoke a Word. The blow missed, impossibly. Giles stumbled, recovered, and lifted the blade again to defend himself. Apollo raised a hand, and Giles could not move. His legs betrayed him and he collapsed to his knees on top of the altar. The sword was still in his hand, but he could no longer raise his arm.
The god laughed, and Giles burned bright with futile anger. But the god was touching him again, stroking his face.
"Well done again, brave one. Remember. She needs a lion, not a lamb."
Giles felt Apollo's kiss once more, and then he fainted.
When he came to, he was bound spread-eagled, face-down on a slab of rock. His entire body was sore. Where? Memory returned: the Council shrine. The selection ritual. Apollo. He opened his eyes with difficulty and looked around himself. He was on the altar. The sword was at his side, its hilt under his left hand. His three fellows were still chained against the far wall, still blindfolded. They seemed to be asleep. Giles cautiously tested his own chains. He was held fast. He rolled his shoulders and attempted to relax.
Lord. Had he truly had a god's prick up his arse last night? He had. He could still feel it. Huge, hard, and burning hot in his mouth and backside. Would any mere mortal's ever compare? His own cock, trapped underneath his belly against the altar, began to harden at the memory. He wanted it again, wanted to be on his knees again with that weight on his tongue, that taste filling his mouth. He writhed in his chains, flexing his hips and rubbing himself against the smooth stone. Profane? He thought not. He relived that first experience of the god thrusting into his mouth, and spent himself on the marble.
Giles slumped in his chains. He understood what the god had meant when he'd warned Giles that he would no longer have the heart to sleep with men. This experience would be his only fantasy forever more. What could compare with it? He wept silently for a little while, then slept again.
The sound of the doors opening woke him. The four acolytes entered and ran over to him, followed more slowly by the four elders of the council. They exclaimed over him softly, then left him there. Giles stayed silent, not knowing what it meant or what they intended. He turned his head and watched them release his three fellows and lead them away, still blindfolded. He'd been one of them, many times before, led away unwanted, eyes stinging in the darkness. For the first time, Giles realized what this meant. He'd been chosen. The Californian Slayer was his. The feral Slayer, the Slayer who'd killed a Watcher already, was his.
Travers himself released Giles at last and helped him to his feet. He had cramped, bound so tightly on the rock, and had difficulty walking for a much more embarrassing reason. They didn't cloak him in any way. Apparently they intended him to go into the chamber nude. He didn't recall this from his experiences with watching the ordinations of others. Well, then. Michael's strong hands supported him as he made his painful way out of the shrine and into the audience chamber.
He carried the sword in his hand.
The rain had ended while he'd endured his trial-- sunlight shone through glassy dome and the center of the chamber was ablaze. Giles blinked. The Watchers were here, the Hundred gathered to salute their newly-dedicated fellow, but Giles could not see them through the glow. He stepped alone into the circle of light. The assembled Hundred gasped. He looked down at himself then, and saw that his skin glittered. He raised the sword and shouted.
Travers, robed as priest, poured oil over his head. Giles swore his oath, dedicated himself, signed his pledge, sealed it with a bloody thumbprint. He burned incense to the god and poured a libation. They gave him a ring, with the his sigil and hers upon it. They told him her name: Buffy Summers. There was an empty place on the dais where she would have stood, if she had been one of them. If she were not on the other side of the world, fighting all alone. It burned his heart to think that she was alone. He should be with her. He would be.
At the end he stood before the Hundred, still nude, still flashing in sunlight, and was saluted. He strode out, triumphant, as he had seen so many Watchers before him go.
Once outside the chamber, in the dim corridors of the retreat, Giles faltered. He had no idea what he was to do next. Until this moment he'd been drunk from whatever they'd put in that liquor. But it was fading at last, and he was bitterly tired. Before he could think what to do, Michael, dutiful acolyte, appeared at his elbow.
Michael led him gently into the baths and sat him down. He coaxed Giles into setting down the sword. The boy poured hot water over him from a shallow basin and washed him clean, carefully. Another assistant carried away the wash-water as if it were precious. Giles had no idea what it meant. At last he was clean, though still sore and now exhausted.
"Gods," he said. He leaned back on the bench and watched Michael towel his legs dry.
"Are you well, sir?"
"As well as can be expected, given--" Giles made an embarrassed gesture.
"Yes, sir, of course." Giles saw the worship glowing in the boy's face.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"Sunday tea-time, sir," Michael told him. "You were in the shrine more than a day."
Sunday evening. He had his work in the morning. The sheer normality of it after this weekend: jackets and ties and cups of tea, when not twenty-four hours earlier he'd been buggered by a god. Giles' head reeled.
Michael dressed him in the clothes he'd come in with, tied his tie for him, fussed over his cuffs. Giles stood with the lad's assistance, picked up the sword, and turned to go.
"Mr Giles?" Giles stopped and looked back. "Sir? I just wanted to say how happy I am for you. It was a privilege to assist you."
Giles' conscience tweaked him. Apollo would not want him to treat Michael as he had been treated. He took the lad's face in his hands. "Michael, you did well. I'm about to be sent overseas, so I can't look after you myself. But I'll see that someone does." Giles bent and kissed him deeply. He flushed.
"Now, Travers wants to see me?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Michael led him slowly through the maze of hallways and upstairs to the chairman's office. The priest who'd just administered the oath to him. Priest, chairman, politician, general. The boy tapped on the door and sent him through.
Travers shook his hand. Reassuring, firm, dry. He was in Savile Row gray, not the white robes he'd been wearing when Giles had seen him earlier.
"You are under oath not to discuss the details of your experience with anyone but me. So we will discuss them now." Travers went to the sideboard, where he poured two whiskies. He handed one to Giles.
"Thank you, sir." Giles tasted his whisky. Decent enough, but he'd tasted ambrosia this weekend. Everything afterward would be dust and ashes.
"Sit down, please."
Giles laid the sword across Travers' desk. He sat and waited. Travers seemed in no hurry to begin his discussion. Giles could feel his gaze on him. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He'd been paraded in front of the Hundred. Every Watcher alive had seen him naked and debauched. The customs of the Watchers meant that they were all aware of each other as sexual beings, men and women without distinction. It had been difficult, to be watched by them yet not be one of them, never to have been taken as a lover by any one of them.
"How are you holding up?" Travers asked, eventually.
"I'm feeling rather, ah, dislocated, sir. Battered, inside and out."
"Are you aware of the degree to which your experience was unusual?"
Giles shook his head. "No, sir. Though he said--"
"He spoke to you?" Travers sat forward in his chair.
"Yes, sir. Quite a bit. It's gone muddled in my head now, but he said I'd remember it when I needed to."
"Good lord, man."
"He called me eramenos, and I thought... well, sir, at first I thought that was what always happened. Then he explained it was because none of you had taken me as a protege. He would teach me himself."
Travers tossed off the rest of his drink.
"There was some argument about you, and always has been," Travers said. He poured more whisky for himself. Giles held up his hand and declined. "Among the twelve. The oracle was adamant that you be included in this trial. The oracle has been adamant about you all along. But Parkes and Leitmuller wanted you excluded. Expelled, in fact. The modernist faction. Claimed there was no cleansing a taint like yours, and that it would be kinder to end your hopes quickly."
Giles looked at his hands, folded in his lap. He had agreed with them, and had only attempted the return because his father had requested it, and enlisted Travers to back him. There were times when he had been so lonely as to wish he hadn't. He had found no aid in his recovery, no comfort for his troubles after Eyghon. But he was a Watcher in his blood, and both he and they had been bound to let him be what he was.
Travers rocked back in his chair. "The truth is that for the previous two trials the oracles demanded your presence, and the modernists rejected you. And of course the god rejected the candidates. We were running out of eligible candidates. So they yielded."
Giles said nothing, thinking this over. He'd been wanted all along, apparently, but held in reserve.
Travers went on. "After this the argument is ended. You are god-touched. Generations of Watchers will whisper your story to each other, magnifying it. Though it can scarcely be magnified, can it? Found with Apollo's sword in your hand, laid out on his altar, which you and the god had obviously used as a trysting-place. Even the modernists cannot deny it, though they will likely refuse to believe your wild story about being his eramenos--"
Giles flared up. "It's no story--"
"I believe you."
"He was angry, you know. That you would treat anyone as you treated me. We are all his, every man and woman of us. You have forgotten the meaning of the tradition, why we have it."
"We do it to teach each other to teach the Slayer. We do it for her. You've strayed from his law. He's angry."
Travers began to deny it. Giles was angry enough himself now that he forgot to whom he was speaking, and the respect owed. "The boy who assisted me, young Robson. Why is he being shunned? What crime did he commit?"
"He was fed on by the vampire who killed his mother. He failed to dispatch it."
"How old was he? Fifteen? He failed to kill a vampire who'd already killed a Slayer and his mother. It's insane to ask that much of him. He deserves a mentor. As I did. I would take him myself--"
"Rupert, you can't--"
"But I have the Slayer now. Someone should. I'll pay for his gifts if that's a difficulty." Giles subsided into his chair, exhausted suddenly.
Travers studied him a moment. "Pryce had asked me to look into his boy, now that my Lydia is heading off to Salzburg. But if you think this Robson is worthy..."
"I'll take him on."
"See that you love him, that you teach him properly. And see that you've left no one else twisting in the wind. As you left me."
"Rupert!" Travers' voice was sharp.
Giles recalled himself and his place. Though that had shifted somewhat, tonight, he was still a servant of the Twelve, and Travers was one of the Four. He pushed himself out of his seat unsteadily and bowed his head. "Forgive me, sir. I, I--"
"Sit down, Rupert. You're knackered. I'll take steps, and I think about how best to make our apologies to our god. I'm not fool enough to argue against a man who's just spoken to Apollo."
Giles nodded, and collapsed again. He was nearing the end of his endurance.
"And I will apologize now, to you. For not taking you as mine as I ought. It was politics. It's always politics. And I ought to have taken a stand."
Giles met Travers' eyes. Travers was also making a political statement by agreeing to take Robson. Giles had no idea what. High-level Watcher politics were beyond him. He reached out to his whisky glass, sitting nearly full on the edge of Travers' desk, and took another sip.
"Have you any other bombshells to lob at me?"
Giles looked up, but Travers' face held only dry amusement. He replaced his glass on the desk. The sword still lay between them. Giles knew better than to think he would be allowed to walk from the compound holding it. Though it was his.
"Yes, sir, one thing. Something he said. Sir, is there a tradition, of, of of, mentoring with our Slayers? I mean, the way we do with each other? A secret thing? I hadn't realized." The thought disturbed him deeply.
Travers put his own glass down empty again. "No. You know very well the answer is no. It's beyond forbidden. We'll deal with you harshly if we find you've done it."
Giles nodded reluctantly. Would not the word of the god take precedence over tradition? Even over taboo? But Giles knew that what men decided was the will of the god was often the end of their thought on the matter. And that the servants of the gods could come to terrible ends at the hands of men.
Travers sighed, and seemed to come to a decision. "Rupert. Listen. If you need to do something, something unconventional, contact me directly and discreetly. I'll give you what support you need. Meanwhile... you'll find yourself more grateful than you know that you'll be on the other side of the world from the consequences. The modernists--"
Travers broke off and shook his head.
"Go home, Rupert. I'm sending young Robson with you. Have him fuss over you for a few days, help you pack. When you're ready to leave, give him the good news and send him to me."
"Thank you, sir."
Giles pushed himself to his feet again and began making his way out, slowly. Travers touched a button on his desk, and a conservatively-dressed young woman appeared from a side door. She vanished again, and a moment later appeared with Michael. Michael took Giles' arm and assisted him out to the hallway. Giles gathered himself enough to give the boy his news.
"Two things, Michael. I've found a mentor for you."
"Sir!" The boy smiled brilliantly.
"Second, you're not going to your mentor right away. You're coming along with me to help me until I head off to the States."
Michael flushed dark red, and Giles saw that this second piece of news pleased him even better than the first.
"Get me home now, I think. That'll be a trick, because I'm about to--" Giles' knees buckled. Young Michael caught him and held him. He hitched Giles' arm over his shoulders, and carried him out.
Continued in "Metastasis".