Greek Myth Fantasy Romance :|: IMMORTAL ECSTASY
A discarded princess...|
A disgraced god...
Love triumphs in the aftermath of...
The romance of Zeleia and Apollo.
NOTES FOR IMMORTAL CONQUEST
The novels and novellas in the Immortal Legends series will have differing levels of heat, from sweet to sensuous to mildly erotic. Immortal Conquest is sensuous on the scale.
Zeleia is the name of an ancient city mentioned in the Iliad.
ABOUT IMMORTAL CONQUEST
Raised by foster parents, Zeleia discovers she is the niece of a king. When she visits her ailing uncle, Zeleia meets the one man she could love with all her heart—Apollo, a slave named for a god. She must fight the attraction to prevent bringing dishonor to her uncle's house. In truth, Apollo the slave is the god, convicted of a crime against Zeus, stripped of his powers, and sentenced to one year as a slave on earth. If he falls in love with Zeleia, he breaks a sacred oath, but if he doesn't, his broken heart may never mend.
As the intrigue of the house of Danaus and the machinations of an avenging immortal unfold around them, Zeleia and Apollo struggle to conquer the love that might cost them everything.
EXCERPT FROM IMMORTAL CONQUEST
Apollo strode through the aether, wispy tendrils of mist curling up to his knees. Just as he reached the wide marble steps of the palace, a goddess crossed the stoa toward him—Eris, who spread discord like a disease wherever she went. He waited for her to be on her way.
Instead, her kohl-rimmed eyes widened at the sight of him. She stopped short at the top of the steps and threw her hands on her hips. Her short black chiton, girted with silver cord, revealed lean, well-muscled limbs. Then she tossed back her head, tight black curls dancing in all directions, and laughed.
Suppressing a shudder at the repellent sound, Apollo mounted the steps. He intended to brush past her without a word, but she blocked his path, forcing him to halt. Her wide mouth, painted black, stretched into a malicious grin.
"Out of my way," he growled and tried to walk around her, but she moved into his path no matter which direction he turned. He gave up the effort of escaping the confrontation. "What do you want?"
Her only answer was her hand striking out and one sharp, black-tipped nail raking his cheek. He knocked her hand away and caught her wrist in a wrenching grip. His other hand wiped away the drops of thick golden ichor, the lifesblood of the immortals. The cut healed instantly at his touch, leaving no scar behind.
"Keep your claws to yourself," he said, trying to maintain a neutral tone. He refused to give in to the violent emotions that lashed at him in her presence.
"What's wrong, Apollo?" she cooed. "Don't you enjoy the chaotic wave that floods your soul? Or can it be that the god of truth won't admit the truth?"
Apollo flung her arm away in disgust and a certain amount of fear. No, he didn't like what she did to him when she was near. He didn't like feeling as if he had no control over his own thoughts and actions. Her foul disposition suited her lineage as a spawn of the dark gods of the underworld.
"Begone with you, Eris. No one should be forced to suffer your presence," Apollo snapped. Indeed, no one wanted her near save Ares who carried her by his side into battle to cause confusion and strife among combatants. "Zeus should have cast you out of Olympus long ago," he added, striving to keep his anger at bay. But his voice quivered with dark emotion, revealing that Eris had the advantage.
"Cast out of Olympus!" Eris rolled her eyes, as stark as obsidian, and tapped one long nail against the dimple in her chin. "What an interesting thought."
"I don't have time for your games. Zeus waits—"
"He waits for you. Impatiently, I might add." Eris' eyes narrowed. "What could his favorite son have done to incur his wrath? Why, you're the golden boy of Olympus! The god of light and truth and prophecy, of music and medicine—all things good and worthy...what could you have done?"
Apollo clenched his teeth. Eris' taunt was an old one. He couldn't help that he was beloved and worshipped by many while she was not. His future, the same as Eris', had rested with the Fates at the moment of his conception. He had no more control over his destiny than the color of his hair or eyes.
"Get out of my way," he growled and swept by her.
This time he did cringe at Eris' laughter and relief washed over him as soon as the harsh sound faded away. He should have felt better in her absence, but now he faced a confrontation with Zeus.
Apollo trod the empty hall softly then halted at the smaller, closed door to the throne room. Recently, he had been spending his days in the Vale of Tempe and his nights in the arms of one Muse or another. He had passed the night before with gentle Calliope, his favorite of late. Before Eos could touch the sky with her rose-tipped fingers, Hermes had appeared. Helmet and sandal wings aflutter, he apologetically relayed the urgent summons from an irate Zeus.
Apollo had no idea why his father would be angry with him. The easiest way to find out was to open the door, walk in, and face Zeus. Still, he hesitated. Before he could act upon the temptation to turn around and leave Olympus, the doors swung open.
"Come forth, Apollo!" Zeus called out the formal command in a thunderous tone.
Now, he had no choice. Drawing in a deep breath, he forced a smile on his face and entered the room.
Zeus was an intensely handsome man, but the struggle to overthrow his own father Cronos and claim his divine destiny had taken its toll. Although ageless, Zeus had the appearance of a mortal man well into his sixties with a cloud of silvery grey hair and a short grey beard. Fine lines etched his face in weariness of the weight of his many responsibilities.
He stood near the center of the throne room, one hand clenched so tightly his knuckles were white. He turned to his sister Hestia, who tended the immortal fire, and snapped, "If you stoke the fire any higher, Hephaestus can use it as his forge!"
Apollo watched as his aunt's gentle eyes brimmed with tears and she dropped the brass poker to the marble floor with a clank. Whatever he had done, and he could honestly think of nothing, Zeus had no right to take his anger out on poor Hestia.
"I’m here, Father."
Zeus whirled suddenly and Apollo stepped back out of surprise.
"Did you think I wouldn't find out? You had to know I'd find out. Beautiful Callianeira. She was mine!"
Apollo nodded, long burnished curls falling over his shoulders. "Yes, you told me about her, a nymph of the Calydonian pool. You described how beautiful she was, how fair her hair and how white her arms. Remember, we sat up one night, drinking spiced nectar, trying to think of a way for you to meet her without Hera finding out."
"Of course I remember! You must think I'm a senile old fool. I'm not senile, but I'm beginning to think I was a fool to trust you. A liar! How can the god of truth stand before me and lie? But we both know you can lie when you want to, don't we?" Zeus drew a deep, shuddering breath and spoke more quietly. "Why do you lie to me, my son? Why do you pretend you didn't take Callianeira? That you did not go to her disguised as a beast and force yourself upon her?"
Apollo wanted to tell him it wasn't true...but he couldn't. He didn’t remember doing what Zeus charged him with, but he couldn't swear to it. He hesitated and knew it cost him credibility with his father. He saw the hardness in Zeus' eyes, so like his own, the sky blue turning to brittle ice.
"Has this Callianeira accused me?" He spoke softly to temper Zeus' anger.
Zeus ignored his question. "Bring your lyre to me, Apollo. Bring it to me exactly as it is. Swear by the Styx that you will do this."
To swear by the Styx was a sacred oath and to break it was punishable by a year of madness and nine years of mortality. Few immortals swore the oath and no one had dared break it. Apollo had sworn by the Styx only once before.
"I, Phoebus Apollo, swear by the Styx, that I will bring my lyre to you exactly as it is."
Wearily, Zeus climbed the steps to the grandest throne, made of pure white marble, trimmed in gold, and encrusted with rare and precious jewels. He rested his arms, one hand still clenched, and waited.
In his own palace of gold and marble, in the east near the rising of the sun, Apollo surveyed his collection of lyres. What Zeus didn't understand was that he owned hundreds of lyres, made of many different materials and in many different styles, each creating its own unique sound. He went over each one, beginning with the first fashioned by Hermes from a turtle shell.
Only one had been disturbed. It was made of heavy oak, waxed to a high sheen...and most of a string was missing. He touched the small fragment still attached to the yoke and his heart pounded in his chest. He had no recollection of how the string could have been lost. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd played this particular lyre. He closed his eyes and wanted to pray. But to whom does a god pray for deliverance?
Had his affliction grown worse? Some time ago he'd discovered he suffered an illness of the mind and he knew neither the cause nor the cure. The malady stole time from him and replaced it with a black void in his memory. He never knew when it would strike or what things he would do. Only afterwards, when he could remember nothing but the blackness, did he know it had occured.
And the things he did... Once, his favorite raven had brought news of his lover's infidelity. Enraged—and in the throes of his madness—he'd turned the bird from white to black. Then he'd struck out at his lover Coronis. By the time he'd regained control of his mind, it was too late to save her, but as she lay on her funeral pyre, he'd rescued the babe she carried: Asclepius, his brightest child.
Another time, he'd forced himself upon the maiden Creusa and had no memory of doing so. When she planned to expose the resultant child, Athena had by then learned of his illness and intervened. She'd taken the babe Ion to live with the priestesses at Delphi. Some time later, Creusa and her husband had adopted the child while on a pilgrimage to the Oracle.
There had been other time lapses and other horrible deeds. Athena was the only one who knew, and she was supposed to be keeping watch over him so that nothing like what happened to the nymph Callianeira would ever occur again. He would have to find his sister as soon as Zeus finished with him.
He could have taken any of the other lyres and been within the bounds of the oath, but he wanted to find out the truth as much as Zeus. He carried the damaged lyre to the throne room and approached his father.
"Is this what you want to see, sire?"
Zeus took the lyre in his huge square hand and unclenched the other to reveal a long piece of string. The piece matched the bit still attached to the yoke. Zeus threw them at Apollo's feet. The oaken frame cracked and another string popped free with a twang.
"Do you know what you have done? My beautiful Callianeira...I told you that I loved her and would woo her. I wanted her for a wife, to comfort me as Hera rarely does. Perhaps she would have given me another son who would have earned fame and glory as many of my sons do. Or a daughter, as beautiful as her mother, full of wisdom and purity. Because of you I have lost her."
Apollo shook his head, but could say nothing. If he had done what Zeus accused him of, he had no memory of it. And he couldn't tell his father of his illness when he, the god of medicine, had no idea of the cause or cure.
"I’m sorry, but I haven't done anything that I'm aware of," he said in as honest a way as he could. When he suffered a spell, he was always aware of lost time, even if he didn't remember what he'd done during that time. "I don't need to force myself on any woman. I don't have any reason to hurt this nymph—"
"Enough! You continue to deny it when I have the proof right here. When I went to Callianeira, I found her mad with grief and pain and shame. She would not let me come near her. Her sisters explained what had happened." Zeus frowned and his chin trembled. "Callianeira was bathing in the pool when an ugly beast, half man, half bear with the talons of an eagle, attacked only her. He told her he was the god Apollo and he wanted her because his father Zeus wanted her. The beast ravished her by the pool in front of her cowering sisters."
Apollo and Zeus sometimes had their differences, like all fathers and sons, but he would never resort to hurting an innocent nymph to avenge a wrong Zeus had committed against him. Yet he had done things he’d never thought himself capable of when the darkness seized him. Could this have been one of those times? Why hadn't Athena watched him as she'd promised?
"As the beast laughed and turned away to leave, the sisters saw the oaken lyre strapped to his back. In Callianeira's hand they found the broken lyre string. Her mind was gone. The ravishment had taken her sanity and the sisters begged me to help her. All I could do—" Zeus' voice broke and tears gathered in his eyes. "All I could do to give her peace was transform her into a flower. This way my Callianeira will live forever."
"No...I—" Apollo began but couldn't finish. No! It couldn’t have happened again.
"Liar!" Suddenly, Zeus rose to his feet and began the proclamation. "I, Zeus Cronides, god of all gods, gatherer of clouds, thrower of thunderbolts—"
"No, wait! Listen to me. I have hundreds of lyres. I could have brought any one of them, but this was the only one damaged."
Zeus was beyond listening and continued even as Apollo spoke. "I, Zeus Cronides, god of all gods, father of Phoebus Apollo, declare that you—"
"No, no! I swear, I swear by the Styx that I—" He faltered. He didn't remember ravishing the nymph. If he had done so, but didn't remember doing it, would the Stygian vow hurl him into a year-long spell of madness anyway? He didn't know and couldn't finish the oath.
"I, Zeus, god of all gods, banish you, Apollo, to Earth, to live one year as a mortal slave! This I decree, this I proclaim. This shall be so as I have spoken."
A bright flash of lightning and a deep rumbling of thunder rent the heavens and Apollo felt himself falling fast through the mist, the sweet aether of Olympus rushing past his ears. Then he felt and breathed the thicker air of Earth, the scent of fresh-turned soil and flowers and greenery and the heavy musky scent of mortals.
Down he fell...
The traveling wagon ground to a halt and Zeleia, awakened from a restless sleep, tumbled to the floor amid pottery, waterskins, and pillows. She cried out once as the last rocky pitches of the wagon settled, and her hand automatically felt for the necklace around her throat. Satisfied the chain was secure, she brushed back long strands of dark hair that had come loose from its braid.
Her cousin Princess Canace began a keen wail not unlike that of a wounded fawn. Canace's handmaiden Bia, eyes wide with fright, scrambled to her mistress' side. She dutifully murmured soothing words in a tongue Zeleia had never heard before.
Zeleia laid a hand on Canace's arm. "Cousin, are you all right?"
Wild-eyed, Canace struck Zeleia's hand away. She pushed at the blond ringlets that had fallen into disarray around her face and cried out, "We've been attacked! We'll be robbed! O Zeus save us, we'll be killed!"
Zeleia stood and adjusted the clasps at her shoulders and the folds of her long-skirted chiton. She glanced at Bia. "Try to calm her and I'll see what has happened."
Over the wails of her cousin, Zeleia could hear the stamps and snorts of nervous horses. The king's soldiers who served as their guards called to one another, but none spoke of an attack or danger. Pushing aside the drapery, closed against the heat of the day, Zeleia leaned over the side.
She caught her breath as she stared down the sheer side of the mountain, the wagon wheels not a handsbreadth from the edge. Dizziness swept over her and she withdrew. She moved to the other side and parted the drapery. Here the mountainside rose out of sight toward the sky.
She leaned out further and saw a large herd of goats crossing the road ahead. In the middle of the road, an elderly man, his himation wrapped to cowl his head, leaned on a crooked staff.
"A herd of goats," Zeleia called out to her cousin.
"A herd of what?" Canace shrieked and crawled up beside Zeleia. "Toxeus, get them out of the way! Whip him until he gets those filthy beasts off the road!"
The soldier Toxeus lifted his whip and spun his horse toward the old goatherd.
"Canace, stop him," Zeleia cried out. "The herd will move more quickly without the noise and confusion."
Canace's green eyes turned as hard as jade. "There must be no more delays. I'm tired of this dusty, dirty journey, and I want to go home."
"Get them out of the way now!" Canace screamed at the soldiers again. "Whip them all!"
Toxeus reached the goatherd and drew back his whip. He shouted again, and the old man spoke, but Zeleia could not hear the reply. Snarling, Toxeus cracked the whip over the goatherd's back.
"No!" Zeleia gathered her long skirts and clambered over the side. There was barely enough room for her between the wagon and the cliff. As she emerged from the narrow space, the whip cracked a second time, and Zeleia broke into a run. Before he could use the whip again, Zeleia caught the braided leather with both hands and pulled as hard as she could.
Caught unaware, Toxeus let the haft slide through his fingers. As he tried to regain the weapon he dropped the reins. The powerful horse reared, pawing the air, but Toxeus recovered control of his mount with the skill of a Scythian.
"Enough!" Zeleia threw the whip down.
Toxeus glared at her, burning hatred flashing in his dark eyes, and his swarthy face flushed. She knew he wanted to grab the whip and use it on her. She stared back at him and wondered why he didn't.
Zeleia's breath caught short when the answer came to her: she was the niece of his king! No longer was she the foundling daughter of simple hunters. Her father Cilix, although he'd chosen the life of a seafarer, was no less a prince for the choice. Royal blood flowed through her veins, as royal as her cousin's.
When Zeleia refused to back down, Toxeus' nostrils flared, but he spurred his mount away. Only then did Zeleia turn her attention to the goatherd. Although the old man appeared unharmed, she took his arm and led him to a large flattened rock beneath a gnarled tree growing out of the cliffside. The stunted tree afforded some shade against the heat of the day.
Zeleia thought she heard the goatherd laugh as he perched on the rock, but it must have been a shaky sigh of relief. The whip had torn his himation in several places. She parted the ragged edges of the himation and chiton beneath. The pale skin was unmarked—no blood, broken skin, or even a welt. How could the soldier lash him with the whip and tear the cloth but not touch his skin? Had his clothing shifted away from the wound?
Before she could move the shredded cloth and search for an injury, the old man caught her arm and pulled her around to sit beside him. He lifted his head and the himation fell back to reveal a kind, wise face framed by ruffling silver hair and a neatly trimmed silver beard.
Zeleia guessed he had met and bade farewell to his sixtieth year, but time had been kind to him for he was still handsome despite the fine weathered lines around his eyes and mouth. His light blue eyes were clear, the color of the cloudless summer sky overhead, and Zeleia thought if she saw those eyes in a man half his age she could easily fall in love.
He smiled at her, deepening the creases around his eyes and mouth. If he was in pain, he hid it very well.
"Are you hurt, sire?" Zeleia asked softly, giving him the respect a man of his age deserved. "Please, if you're hurt, let me help "
"Thank you, child, but I am well." His voice was deep and resonant, like the rumble of faraway thunder.
"Are you sure?" She tried to stand but he placed his hands on her arms and made her sit. "The whip tore your clothing, but I couldn't find the wound."
"I am uninjured. I moved and was fortunate that the whip didn’t reach my skin."
Zeleia sighed in relief. "I apologize for my cousin's...impatience. Her father is ill and she—she is anxious to return to his side."
With the lie, her eyes fell to study the rock-strewn ground. Speaking false did not come easily to her lips, and she silently swore that she would never again lie to cover her cousin's selfishness.
He placed a finger beneath her chin and lifted her head until she was forced to look into his light eyes. He studied her, and for a moment Zeleia thought he was going to demand she speak the truth.
"It's all right, child, I understand," he said and removed his finger. His cool touch left her skin atingle long after.
Bia, running from the wagon, broke the spell of the strange moment. She approached them hesitantly, reluctant to disturb them, but she did not approach in fear. Zeleia had seen the girl react in fear to Canace.
"What is it, Bia?"
"The princess, she is in a temper. She is throwing things and shouting. Please, m'lady..."
"Tell her we'll be on our way shortly."
Bia bowed and flashed Zeleia a brief smile. She hastened back toward the wagon."
"Are you sure that you are uninjured?" Zeleia asked again.
He nodded and stood, spreading his arms wide and turning in a circle to prove he suffered no injury.
Zeleia stood also. "If you please, sire, your goats—“
"Of course, the goats," he said as if he'd forgotten all about them. He clapped his hands twice and the milling goats filed into formation. They continued their trek up the rocky slope as if they'd never been interrupted.
Zeleia blinked. The animals responded as if they'd been trained. "Th-Thank you, sire. Now, if you're sure there is nothing I can do to help you, we'll be on our way."
"Wait, child." He laid a cool hand on her arm. The other reached deep into the folds of his himation and brought out a small crystal jar. He held it out to her on the flat palm of his hand. "This is for you."
"Oh, no, I couldn't accept it."
"Take it, child." He pressed the container into her hand. "You will know when the time comes to use it. Until then, and even then, you cannot touch the substance inside the jar. It is dangerous and can't be used for anything other than what it is intended."
Zeleia frowned but accepted the jar. It was rude to refuse a gift. Wars had been fought over the refusal of gifts.
She looked closely at the smooth crystal and the plug of wax that sealed the wide mouth. She tipped the jar first one way then the other, and a rainbow of colors swirled but never blended.
"Thank you, sire."
It was also rude not to give a gift in return unless one was too poor to have anything to offer. All she had with her was the necklace, and she would rather die than part with it. The necklace, her only legacy, had been found with her—or so Metra and Thoas had told her many years. When Canace came, Zeleia learned it had belonged to her mother and a matching necklace was worn by her father. No, she could never part with it.
The only other thing of value she had with her was a short string of beads she wore around her wrist. The beads were small and uniform, each carved from a different wood so that each was a different hue. She had bartered for it in the agora, the marketplace at Paos two summers ago. It was a dear possession since the old woman who carved the beads had died this past spring, but Zeleia had nothing else to offer. She slipped the strand from her wrist and held it out to the goatherd.
He accepted it graciously. "I have a daughter who likes hand-crafted things."
"I have to go."
"Of course. Heed my words, do not touch the substance in the jar under any circumstances, even when the time comes to use it. Farewell, child."
He joined the last few goats that straggled behind, and Zeleia stepped from the dappled shade of the stunted tree. She squinted against the glare of the sun as she watched them climb the rocky slope.
Suddenly, she could see neither goats nor man. She raised her hand to shade the sun, and her eyes darted all over the mountainside. She took a few more steps but none of them were visible. The man and his herd had vanished!
A high-pitched scream claimed her attention. Canace was still raving, and poor Bia had to deal with her alone. With one last curious glance at the place where the man and his goats should have been, Zeleia started toward the wagon.
As she passed by the soldiers, she felt Toxeus' dark eyes following her. She glanced at him, and what little of his dusky face that showed between the bronze faceplates sent a shiver down her spine. She had made a dangerous enemy of him.
Instead of squeezing between the wagon and the cliff, Zeleia decided to board at the front of the wagon and climb through the draperies behind the driver. As she gathered her skirts, she felt someone at her elbow.
It was Gyas, one of the slaves. Gyas, like Bia, was an ebon-skinned AEthiopian. His eyes were deeply brown, almost black, and his coarse hair cropped close to his scalp. He was shorter than Zeleia, but his muscular arms and barrel chest accented his power while belying his gentle nature. On the three-day journey, Zeleia had noticed how he and Bia exchanged meaningful glances. Sometimes, when they thought no one watched, they would spend a few precious moments together privately. Zeleia had seen how gently he treated Bia and how Bia's face lit up when she was with him. Because of their own secrecy, Zeleia had given no indication that she was aware of their relationship.
Zeleia held out her hand, and he helped her aboard the wagon. "Thank you, Gyas."
As she climbed through the drapery, a pillow sailed past her head.
"I heard you!" Canace shrieked. "I heard you thank that servant."
Zeleia ignored her cousin as she cleared a place to sit.
"He's a slave!" Canace continued her tirade. "It's his duty to provide services for his betters—oof!"
The wagon lurched forward, and the princess lost her balance. Canace squealed as she landed on her backside amidst broken pottery and strewn pillows.
Zeleia hid a smile as the uneven bouncing of the wagon caused her cousin to lose her footing again and again. At last, Canace collapsed onto her cushioned seat and ordered Bia to restore her disheveled hair before she straightened the disorder in the wagon.
Zeleia found her herb pouch and slipped the crystal jar inside. The roomy leathern pouch had a strap long enough to fit over her head, to lie across her chest and back, so the pouch itself rested at her hip. This left her hands free for picking herbs.
Long ago, Zeleia discovered she had a way with herbs. Under Metra's tutelage, she easily learned about plants and how they could heal. As she grew older, she instinctively knew which combination of herbs would relieve which symptoms. She knew which sicknesses and pains could be eased or cured with her potions and which ones would need care of a more knowledgeable physician. Her skills became widely known, and she was frequently sought for help when a physician might be several days' journey away.
Zeleia glanced at her cousin who now sat coolly poised as Bia tidied the intricate knot of ringlets.
During their journey, Zeleia had tried to find some resemblance between them but could not. While Canace was short and delicate, Zeleia was tall and sturdy. Canace had pale blond hair that curled naturally, cool green eyes, and fair skin, white and smooth as cream. Zeleia's hair was black as midnight which she often braided into a long thick rope over one shoulder. Her eyes were dark blue, the color of a stormy sky, and her skin was lightly browned from all the time she spent out of doors.
Each must look like her mother, Zeleia speculated. Although she had no idea what the woman who had given birth to her looked like, she now knew her name and where she came from.
Canace had explained that Zeleia's father Cilix had been estranged from his brother Danaus for over twenty years because Cilix preferred the sea. A few years after he left, Cilix had sent word that he'd married Cilissa, the daughter of a merchant from the village of Zeleia near the great city of Troy. Canace said they had heard nothing more until a month ago when an old man who had once sailed with Cilix passed through Iotia and brought news of him.
The old seafarer told them that Cilissa had died shortly after giving birth to Zeleia. Cilix had no way to care for the babe, named for Cilissa's home village, so he left her with a childless couple near Paos in Arcadia. With the babe he'd left a necklace, made of his seal. Cilix' seal, the old seafarer had explained, was made of gold and was no larger than the breadth of a man's two thumbs. The seal had been struck with a simplistic likeness of a seagoing vessel with a profile of Poseidon, god of the sea, on its square sail. The seal had been unevenly cleaved in half, and each piece had been affixed to a thin gold chain, one worn by Cilix, the other by his wife. Cilissa's necklace had been left with the babe while Cilix still wore his.
Metra and Thoas admitted a seafarer called Cilix left Zeleia with them, but they had no idea he was a prince of Iotia. He said he would return for her when she was older, but years passed and they never saw him again. At first Zeleia was too young to understand, and later they decided not to tell her at all. A seafarer's life was perilous. If Cilix died at sea, then Zeleia was spared the disappointment of waiting for a father who never came. And if he did come for her, Zeleia could learn the truth then.
Zeleia found no fault with their reasoning. She could never be angry with Metra and Thoas when all they wanted was to spare her the anguish of not knowing.
Princess Canace had come to Arcadia to bring Zeleia to Iotia. The king wanted to meet the only child of his brother, who was presumed lost at sea, but there was reason for haste. The king was ill and he wanted to see his niece before Thanatos claimed him.
Zeleia had to go, to discover as much as she could about her blood family. It would be a short visit, only a few weeks. When she returned, life would go on as before.
"What did that old man give you?" Canace's shrill question startled Zeleia. "I saw that dirty old goatherd hand you something. If it's food, I wouldn't eat it."
Zeleia sighed and reached into her pouch. She brought out the jar, setting it on the flattened palm of her hand, just as the old man had given it to her. The rainbow colors swirled in kaleidoscopic patterns. Canace and Bia, who watched from a far corner, were as mesmerized as she by the colorful undulations. Bia gasped and mumbled something in her native tongue.
"He said the substance inside is dangerous and that I shouldn't touch it. He said I'd know when the time came to use it," Zeleia explained.
Canace's green eyes narrowed. "You're speaking in riddles."
Zeleia replaced the jar in her pouch. "I'm telling you what he said. It may be poisonous or a skin irritant, just as some herbs are. I think the colors come from the light shining through the crystal."
"Didn't he explain what he meant by that you'd know when to use it?"
"No, he said nothing more, just warned me again not to touch it, even when the time came to use it."
"Hmpf, riddles from a rattled mind," Canace sneered, but she stared at the pouch the rest of the way to Iotia.
The black horse snorted and tossed his head, stamping restlessly as Apollo and Xiphenos approached the stall.
"Easy, Chaos...easy, boy..." Apollo murmured and rubbed Chaos' sleek neck. The animal calmed, flicking his long silky tail once.
Xiphenos shook his head. "I still can't believe how that horse has taken to you. He never let anyone near him before."
Apollo shrugged. "He let you."
"He barely tolerated my presence," Xiphenos corrected with a laugh. "Until you came I was the only one who dared exercise and brush him down. And I had to watch my backside. He's nipped me a time or two."
Apollo entered the stall, his hand on Chaos' flank to let the horse know he was there. "Chaos and I have an understanding. I won't bite him if he doesn't bite me."
Xiphenos chuckled as Apollo knelt beside the horse's injured foreleg. He removed the dressing and examined the gash. Pleased with how the new growth of skin looked, he cleansed the area and smeared it with a salve of herbs.
"He seems to be healing well," Xiphenos observed.
"Yes, he is. I think I'll take him for a short ride. He needs some exercise after being confined for so long. A walk around the stableyard will do him good."
"Maybe next time he'll think twice before trying to jump the fence."
"Maybe," Apollo said as he secured the bandage. He stood and ran his hand over Chaos' silken coat. "But I think he desires his freedom as much as the rest of us."
"Freedom," Xiphenos whispered and sighed. "It's been so long, I'm not sure if I remember what it's like to be free."
Apollo clenched his jaw to keep from saying anything. In six months his banishment would come to an end and he would taste freedom once again. So would Xiphenos, he silently promised his friend. Apollo was forbidden to reveal his true identity to anyone, so Xiphenos couldn't know his fate had already changed for the better.
Unable to erase the morose expression from Xiphenos' face, Apollo changed the subject. "Do you want to ride him?"
"Not me." Xiphenos handed Apollo a bridle. "The one time I tried I hit the dirt faster than Hermes with a message. The only one who has ever ridden him is Toxeus."
Apollo knew the dark soldier whose eyes were as black as Tartarus. His uncle Hades would personally usher Toxeus' soul into the deepest, darkest pit when the time came.
"Chaos was a gift from one of the wealthy suitors who sought Princess Canace's hand. When King Danaus became ill and the suitors left, Toxeus thought he'd take Chaos as his own mount. Toxeus is an excellent horseman, I'll give him that, but it took all of Toxeus' strength to stay in the saddle.” Xiphenos grinned. “Toxeus was in a sweat when he dismounted. He said a king's soldier needed a disciplined and dependable mount, not an uncontrollable beast."
Apollo had slipped the bridle over Chaos' head. The horse had turned, but Apollo persisted and fastened it firmly. Now, he led Chaos from the stall.
Outside the stable, in the bright afternoon sun, Xiphenos continued, "Toxeus also said Chaos should be run through with a dull sword. I slept in the stable a long time, but Toxeus never came near him. I think he's afraid of Chaos."
The horse shuffled restlessly. Apollo had chosen not to use a saddle for the short ride, but he mounted easily and kept a tight grip on the reins in case Chaos should rear or bolt. Surprisingly, he stood patiently awaiting Apollo's direction.
Xiphenos threw up his hands. "By the gods, that horse is yours in spirit. Be thankful Toxeus isn't here to see this. He'd run you both through with a dull sword."
Before Apollo could answer, a low rumble in the distance caught their attention.
"Thunder?" Xiphenos questioned, glancing at the sky.
Apollo looked, too. A few wispy clouds of no more substance than the aether of Olympus floated lazily in the pale summer sky. Then he identified the sound of wheels on paving stones. "Wagon."
"The Princess has returned," Xiphenos said without enthusiasm.
From behind the stable, they couldn't see the paved roadway that led to the courtyard in front of the palace. The rumble grew louder, and now they could hear the clatter of the wagon team and the soldiers' horses as well. Then the noise came to an abrupt stop, and as Apollo listened, he relaxed his hold on the reins.
Chaos quickly took advantage of the opportunity. He reared once and it was all Apollo could do to keep from sliding off his back. When Chaos’ forelegs hit the ground, he took off at a dead run.
As the wagon passed through Iotia, Zeleia peered through the drapery to catch a glimpse of the city where her father was born and lived until the siren song of the sea called to him and claimed him. To her disappointment, Iotia was no more than a larger collection of mud-brick and wooden buildings of the kind found in her own tiny village of Paos. They traveled a dirt road no better than any they'd ridden over thus far.
The narrow streets of Iotia teemed as people went about their daily tasks. Merchants hawked their wares in the agora, and customers, haggling over prices, crowded around each stall. Zeleia absorbed the sights and sounds and smells—the salty tang of the nearby gulf underlying all.
The palace appeared upon a distant hill, dazzling white against the blue sky. Then the wagon followed a turn in the road and the palace slipped from view again.
"I do hope Phaedrus is here to welcome us home," Canace commented as she motioned for Bia to help straighten her elaborately embroidered chiton.
"Who is Phaedrus?" Zeleia asked.
"My betrothed. Prince Phaedrus has been helping out during my father's illness," Canace explained. "It will be a relief to be in his sophisticated company again!"
Zeleia ignored the insult and tied back the drapery nearest her to have an unobstructed view as the wagon slowed to pass through the tall, wide gates. The rutted dirt gave way to a stone paved roadway that led from the entrance at the foot of the hill to the palace courtyard.
Built of massive blocks of white marble, the palace towered on the crest of the hill. Eight fluted columns, taller and more than twice the circumference of any ancient oak, supported the roof of the stoa.
As Zeleia watched the palace grow nearer, she couldn't help but think treacherous thoughts. If Cilix had not gone off to the sea or become estranged from his brother, she would have lived here all her life. If—a tiny word but its consequences were great.
If things had been different, she would never have known Metra and Thoas. If things had been different, she might be as spoiled and petty as her vain cousin. No, she had no regrets about the way things had turned out. Perhaps Cilix made the wiser choice after all.
At Canace's order, Bia tied back the drapery on the other side. Now, Zeleia could see the marble steps and the two men who descended them. One was young and stepped with a regal bearing and Zeleia guessed he was Prince Phaedrus. The other was short and squat and remained a respectable distance behind. A servant.
The wagon came to a full stop.
"Phaedrus!" Canace called out. One of the slaves who had accompanied them helped Canace from the wagon and the prince took her hand. "Phaedrus, you don't know how good it is to be home again."
Zeleia stood, her stomach aflutter. Now that she was here she was suddenly nervous. She watched Bia slip out the back into Gyas' waiting arms and wished she could escape by that route, too.
"I hope your journey was a success?" Phaedrus questioned with one eyebrow arched. He peered into the wagon and Zeleia drew deeper within the shadows. The Prince was handsome but from the golden band of laurel leaves set amidst perfectly cropped curls to the affectation of a thin drape tossed carelessly over one shoulder to the short-skirted chiton which accentuated his well-formed thighs, he was all too conscious of his own perfect appearance.
They make a perfect couple, Zeleia thought and in the same instant Bia screamed as the rapid clatter of hoofbeats echoed in the courtyard.
The wagon lurched forward and Zeleia fell, tumbling to the floor of the runaway wagon. A sharp pain shot through her head, then darkness covered her like a shroud.
By the time Apollo regained his balance and a tighter grip on the reins, Chaos was in a full gallop. The powerful horse careened around the stable and again Apollo fought to keep his seat. He heard Xiphenos shout, but the words were lost in the rush of wind past his ears.
He pulled the reins with all his strength, but the horse refused to obey. Chaos took another close turn around the palace and nearly ran over two people. Apollo recognized them when Bia screamed and Gyas swept her aside just in time.
As Chaos raced across the courtyard, Apollo caught only fleeting images: the soldiers as they regained control of their startled mounts, the princess who wore a scowl, Gyas as he ran toward the wagon...
Before Gyas reached them, the team bolted and shot in front of Chaos. The horse reared and pulled to one side to avoid the galloping team. When Chaos landed, his injured leg gave way and he stumbled forward, nearly throwing Apollo over his head. The horse limped a few times, then stopped.
The frantic team took a corner too sharply and the wagon turned over, crashing into the wall. They dragged the wreckage a few dozen paces but soon gave up, snorting in frustration.
Apollo dismounted as Xiphenos ran up to help hold the horse. Apollo looked around at the disorder in the courtyard. A few of the soldiers calmed their mounts. The scattered slaves. The destroyed wagon.
"Chaos," he muttered. "They named you well."
He bent to examine the foreleg and hoped there was no more damage.
"Apollo! Over here!" Gyas called from the wagon. "The princess' cousin, she's still inside."
"Walk him back to the stable," Apollo said to Xiphenos. "I'll look at him later."
Xiphenos nodded and Apollo ran to help Gyas. Apollo threw out waterskins and silken pillows, broken pottery and pieces of cloth. Gyas picked through the debris, tossing off huge planks as if they were kindling.
"Are you sure she's in here?" Apollo asked. They had moved most everything out of the way.
"Lady Zeleia, she never got out of the wagon. Keep digging."
Then Apollo heard a moan, as soft as the sigh of a breeze through a field of flowers. He heaved a seat frame out of the way then drew back a piece of drapery.
She lay on her side, curled around a storage barrel, the only thing that saved her from being crushed by the frame. A trickle of blood oozed from a cut on her forehead, leaving a dark trail to her jaw. Long black hair tangled wildly in jagged splinters of broken wood.
He was afraid to touch her, afraid of broken bones and bleeding inside. Her face was pale although her skin was the color of warm honey. She moaned again and stirred, thick black lashes fluttering beneath her eyes.
"Is she all right?" Gyas asked and moved the barrel out of the way.
Apollo knelt beside her and didn't know why he felt fear. He was the god of medicine although his powers had been stripped away. Fortunately, his knowledge hadn't been taken as well. He could do more for her than any physician in Hellas.
Her lashes fluttered again, opening to storm-blue eyes.
"Lady Zeleia?" Gyas murmured. "Can you hear me, m'lady?"
"Y-Yes." She tried to rise, but Apollo laid his hands on her shoulders to keep her still.
"Don't try to move yet," he told her.
"Wh-What happened, Gyas?"
"The horses, m'lady, they were spooked by the demon horse. Apollo is here, he can help you."
"Apollo!" Zeleia whispered and tried to rise again.
Gyas chuckled, but it didn't erase the worried look in his eyes. "Not that Apollo. This one knows medicine, too, so do what he says."
Apollo took a corner of the drapery and wiped the trail of blood from her face. Her eyes lifted and met his gaze. Hers widened a bit, as if in surprise, then dropped away.
"I'm all right," she said and surged upward before he could stop her. Her eyes closed and she swayed against him. "M-My hair," she moaned.
Gently, he pulled the taut strands free.
"My lady, are you in pain?"
Her head remained nestled against him, but she lifted a hand to the cut on her forehead. "Only here."
"Move your arms and legs."
She did as he told her and murmured they were all right. He placed his other arm under her knees and lifted, cradling her against him.
Why does she feel as if she belongs in my arms? he wondered as he carried her toward the palace steps. He had been too long without female companionship, he decided quickly. She was mortal and forbidden...unless he wanted to spend the next year gripped in a stygian madness and the next nine as a mortal man.
He shook his head against the thought. One year of mortality was more than enough.
"Is she alive?" the princess snapped as they approached her.
"Yes. She's alive, but she needs to lie down."
As Apollo started up the steps, Canace called out, "Stop him! Haemon, get one of the house servants to carry my cousin to her chambers. You know the stable slaves are not allowed to use the front entry."
Haemon bowed and scurried up the steps.
Apollo turned to the princess. "I'm not sure how badly she's injured. She needs to be moved as little as possible. I'll carry her to her chambers, m'lady, unless you wish to risk your cousin's health."
Not waiting for an answer, he continued up the steps. He heard the princess sputtering behind him and a quiet laugh from the lady in his arms.
Zeleia covered her mouth as soon as the sound escaped. What must he think of her! According to Canace, he was only a slave and it didn't matter what slaves thought. Zeleia didn't think that way. Slaves were people, too, with thoughts and feelings. The only difference was their station in life—what the Fates had decreed for them.
"I'm sorry," she said so that only he could hear. "But for three days I have longed to put my cousin in her place."
Haemon met them with another servant when they reached the entrance.
"I'll carry my Lady Zeleia to her chambers," Apollo said and Zeleia heard his voice resonate through his chest.
"But the princess—"
"Would you want the princess to know you kept her cousin waiting?"
Zeleia peeked through her lashes. Haemon was the short, squat man she had seen on the palace steps. He was bald with small beady eyes that squinted in anger. Dismissing the other servant, he turned on his heel to lead the way through a maze of halls. Zeleia squeezed her eyes shut again.
Finally, they stopped. Zeleia opened her eyes as Apollo laid her on a huge bed. His arms remained beneath her a few moments longer than necessary. She tilted back her head and looked up into his eyes...eyes the color of a summer sky. She had not been mistaken.
His light eyes were the exact same shade as the goatherd's and her thoughts came tumbling through her mind: If I saw those eyes in a man half his age, I could easily fall in love.
Apollo eased his arms from beneath her, and Zeleia let her head sink into the down-filled pillow.
"You're bleeding again, my lady."
Haemon stepped near. "You can go now."
Apollo swung toward him and the little man jumped back a pace. Apollo was tall, taller than any man she had ever seen, and he towered over Haemon like a giant over a child. "Have Xiphenos bring my bag. He'll know what I need."
"You heal horses," Haemon sneered. "We'll get the physician from Iotia to care for the princess' cousin."
"I healed people before I was sent here, and I've cared for the king's slaves. Tell Xiphenos to hurry."
Haemon's eyes narrowed into small black dots.
"Or do I tell the princess you have refused to help her cousin?" While Apollo's words were threatening, the tone of his voice was light.
Haemon's breath expelled in a huff, and he stalked from the room. Zeleia let another laugh escape.
Apollo turned to her and smiled. "You can't be hurt too badly if you can laugh."
"I told you I'm all right. I don't think you can hold me as a threat to Haemon much longer," she said.
He crossed the room to a table, dampened a clean cloth with water from the amphora, and returned to her side.
"Why do you say that?" he asked while washing away blood and dirt.
"My cousin doesn't like me. I don't think it would bother her if I had perished in the accident."
He held a clean corner against the cut, applying pressure.
"The princess is selfish, but I don't think she would wish you harm."
"No, I don't think she wishes me harm," Zeleia said. "I think she doesn't care one way or another."
He didn't argue with her, she noticed.
"Thank you for all you've done. And please thank Gyas, too."
"You're welcome, my lady. I'll tell Gyas." He peered beneath the cloth. "I think the bleeding has stopped, but I'll hold this until Xiphenos arrives."
Zeleia tried to avoid his summersky eyes. The longer I look, the deeper I'm lost, she thought. Instead, she focused on his hair. She wanted to touch the long curls, burnished gold and kissed by the sun, that lay across his shoulders. Shorter locks framed his chiseled jaws and cheekbones, as if someone had sculpted him from a piece of gold tinted marble, and chipped off two pieces of sky for eyes.
"I can hold it," she offered, but he didn't move his hand away. "I'm not hurt. I'm a little sore from being thrown, but nothing's broken."
"I have a salve to put on the cut. Then you need to rest. Physician's orders."
"But you're not a physician," Zeleia protested teasingly.
Apollo laughed, the sound light and musical.
Led by Haemon, another servant entered the chamber. He was taller than Haemon, but shorter than Apollo. He had a handsomely boyish face, sandy-blond hair, and eyes as dark as wet sand. He dressed the same as Apollo: a coarse-woven sleeveless tunic, Phrygian leggings, and thick-soled boots. Haemon and the other house servants wore short chitons and sandals.
"Lady Zeleia, my friend Xiphenos."
Xiphenos bowed his head. "I hope you are well, m'lady."
"Yes, I am. I've been telling him, but he won't listen."
"Apollo is a healer and stubborn. I've found it's easier to go along with him than argue."
"I'll remember that."
Xiphenos handed Apollo a small leathern bag. Apollo brought out a small pot, removed the bandage, and smeared the salve over the cut.
"You must go. Now," Haemon warned from the door.
"I'm almost finished."
"The princess will have my head if she finds you here. You don't have to endure her temper. Go now. Sinon is in the hall. He will show you the back way out from here."
Apollo brushed back her hair. "Rest for a while. When you do get up, if you feel dizzy, have Haemon send for me. Do you promise?"
"Yes," Zeleia whispered. "Thank you."
Apollo drew closer to her, as if he might kiss her forehead to make it better, then stood abruptly. He left the room without a backward glance.
"Good day, m'lady," Xiphenos said and followed.
"Is there anything you need, m'lady?" Haemon asked stiffly.
"No, thank you. I'll do as Apollo suggests and rest for a while."
"As you wish." Haemon bowed and left, shutting the door behind him.
Zeleia snuggled deeper into the down-filled bed. Why did she have to find those eyes in a slave? It didn't matter to her, but as a guest she couldn't dishonor her uncle's house. Canace would go into a rage if she knew Zeleia's thoughts at this moment. She was only here for a short visit then she would be gone and— Her heart skipped a beat. Apollo would still be here. He would still be a slave.
Impossible! But nothing was truly impossible. Until three days ago she didn't know who her blood parents were. Now she had kin and an entire history. Nothing was impossible, she reasoned. Some things were just more difficult than others.
After resting, Zeleia sought out Canace to ask about her uncle and request to see him. The princess was in the midst of having her pale blond curls once more rearranged for the evening meal. Zeleia had refused to simply withdraw and disappear. Annoyed, Canace had finally lead Zeleia to his chambers.
"Canace, did you—" the pale man whispered as the princess approached his bed.
"Yes, Father," Canace answered. "I found your long-lost niece in Arcadia and brought her here."
"Good..." He reached for her, but she barely glanced at him as she walked past, stopping at a table covered in a collection of vases and amphoras in a variety of forms. Some were tall and slender, some squat and thick, all were richly decorated with scenes from the ancient legends of the gods painted in gold and inlaid with precious gems.
Canace picked up one and examined it. "You've added another amphora to your collection."
"Yes...yes...a gift from Pheres of Thessaly. Where is she? Are you certain she's Cilix' daughter?"
"Are you sure the amphora wasn't sent to me?" Canace's lower lip thrust out petulantly.
"I'm here." Embarrassed by her cousin's behavior, Zeleia stepped forward, and the king's emaciated fingers stretched toward her. It was the nightmare of every child come to life—the skeletal hand of Charon reaching out to guide her onto his boat, to ferry her across the River Acheron and into the realm of Hades beyond. She repressed the urge to draw back.
"Come closer!" Danaus snapped.
Zeleia moved nearer and his hand clamped onto her wrist with more strength than she would have thought he possessed.
"I-I'm glad to finally meet you, uncle," she said softly and smiled.
"The necklace, girl," he said impatiently. "I want to see the necklace."
"She has it," Canace assured him. "I made sure she had the necklace before I brought her."
Naturally, he would want to see the proof that she was his brother's child. She held up the half-seal. "I carry it with me always."
"My eyes aren't as good as they once were." He jerked his hand from her wrist and held it out. "Let me have it now."
Zeleia reluctantly lifted the chain over her head. Before she could offer it to him, he snatched the dangling coin and squinted at it, causing the jagged lines around his eyes to deepen. It was strange how her uncle appeared older than the goatherd, but his age could be no more than two score and ten.
"Yes, yes, just as the old seafarer described it," he cried out, rising to a near-sitting position. He held the necklace up as far as his arm would reach. "Thank the gods, you are blood of my blood!"
Exhausted from the effort, he fell back into the pillows, clasping the necklace to his chest. His eyes closed and his breathing became labored.
Zeleia glanced at Canace, who was tracing the gold filigree on the amphora with one finger. "Cousin, your father has overtaxed himself."
Canace looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Father?"
The king gave no indication that he heard, not the fluttering of an eyelid or a difference in his breathing.
"Well, Father needs his rest. He's been looking forward to your arrival and it may have excited him too much." Canace shrugged and started for the door. "His servant will see to him. I instructed Haemon to prepare a special meal to celebrate your arrival. Prince Phaedrus will be joining us. Don't you think he's quite handsome?"
Instead of answering, Zeleia leaned closer to her uncle and lay a hand on his chest. His heart beat faintly but steadily. His breathing seemed to have improved from just a few moments before. She felt his forehead, as cool and dry as his hand. Perhaps Canace had seen this happen before and knew he would recover.
"Come, Zeleia, and let Father rest. We mustn't keep the prince waiting."
Zeleia carefully untwined the necklace from his fingers, then slipped it back to its rightful place. "Rest well, Uncle, and I'll visit again soon."
Canace had gone and Zeleia started across the room when an aged servant appeared from the shadows, hurrying to the king's bedside.
"Excuse me," Zeleia called out. "What is your name?"
The old man eyed her warily, his forehead wrinkled in a scowl, but he answered, "Echion...m'lady."
"I am Zeleia and the king is my uncle. Does he always tire this easily?"
Echion nodded. "Ever since the sickness came upon him some months ago."
"If he worsens, will you please let me know."
His brow smoothed a little, but he arched one eyebrow as if he couldn't quite believe her concern, and nodded. Zeleia smiled reassuringly and hastened to catch up with Canace.
As they walked along the hallway, Canace stopped once to admire her reflection in a polished shield which hung on the wall amid other armaments of another time. She patted ringlets into place.
"Of course that lazy handmaiden is never around when I need her," she growled and looked at Zeleia with a golden eyebrow arched high. "You'll have to do." She turned her back to Zeleia again. "Is my hair out of place?"
"Perfect as always," Zeleia murmured.
"And does my chiton fall properly in the back?"
"Yes. I've often wondered how you manage such graceful folds," Zeleia outright lied, but didn't feel a bit of remorse. She had discovered that her cousin thrived on compliments, and flattery often lessened the frequency and severity of her angry tantrums.
Canace turned and looked at Zeleia again, and the arch of her brow was even higher. Her green eyes swept over Zeleia's height and her slightly wrinkled chiton. "Well, when one has the figure of a goddess, one's chiton always falls properly."
Zeleia almost smiled at the insult as it was no less than she expected from Canace. But then the princess might brood over what Zeleia had to smile about and eventually take out her frustration on an innocent bystander. Zeleia forced herself to remain expressionless.
"Tell me, cousin," Canace began as they walked down the hall side by side. "Have you had a chance to open the jar the old goatherd gave you?"
"Why, no, of course not." In truth, she had completely forgotten about it. "He told me I would know when the time came to use it and I've received no sign."
Canace laughed. "Any time is the right time to use a beauty potion. Peasants may be lacking in sophistication, but their rustic concoctions usually work. After all, what else do they have to do with their time?"
Struggle to survive, Zeleia wanted to retort, but once again bit her tongue. Her life with Metra and Thoas had not been luxurious like Canace's, but neither had it been as hard as some of the poorer families in Paos. Canace had no idea what it took to survive without a kingdom to finance every need and whim.
"Why do you think it's a beauty potion?"
"I suppose it could be a condiment, but it doesn't look edible." She shrugged. "What else could it be?"
Zeleia didn't argue, but she had seen something in the goatherd's eyes or heard something in his voice that lead her to believe it wasn't anything as frivolous as a beauty enhancement.
"I've been meaning to ask you about the seafarer who knew my father."
"What about him?"
"I would like to speak with him. Is he still here at the palace?"
Canace waved the thought of him away with one hand. "He left a long time ago. Why do you ask?"
"I thought he could tell me about my father. What was the seafarer's name? Do you know where he was from or where he was going when he left here?"
"How am I supposed to remember anything about an insignificant old man whom I saw but once when I was a child?" Canace shook her head. "I doubt he's still alive."
Zeleia felt the last tenuous connection with her father slip away. "Was he ill?"
Canace shrugged. "He was very old."
They skirted the inner courtyard, lined with slender columns, a shrine to Zeus at its center, then entered the hall to the dining area.
"We've kept Phaedrus waiting long enough." Canace stopped suddenly and looked at Zeleia. "Do try to act as if those Arcadians taught you manners. By the grace of the gods, you are of royal blood even if you were raised in the backwoods."
The last thing Zeleia wanted to do was share a formal meal with those two. She held a hand to her injured forehead and winced convincingly. "I'm not as recovered as I thought. I think I should rest again. Please apologize to the prince for me."
Canace visibly brightened. "Good. Of course, I'm sorry to hear you still aren't feeling well. What an unfortunate accident. However, it's probably best you don't spend much time with Phaedrus. He will think the House of Danaus breeds ill."
Zeleia watched her as she disappeared through the tall arched doorways. She stood long enough to hear the deep voice of Prince Phaedrus and the answering tinkle of her cousin's laughter. She couldn't distinguish their words, but the gaiety of their voices was unmistakable. While King Danaus lay deathly ill, the prince and princess enjoyed themselves.
Frowning, Zeleia made her way back to the inner courtyard. From this central location she should be able to find her way anywhere in the palace, but she couldn't remember the way to her chamber. The best thing to do would be to return to the king's rooms. Echion would be able to send her in the right direction.
Before she reached the king's door, Bia appeared carrying a covered basket.
"This way, m'lady," she said and Zeleia gratefully followed her.
Zeleia helped Bia push open the heavy door to her chamber. Bia set the basket on a table.
"I thought you might want to eat alone this evening, m'lady."
"You're very kind. And you're right!" Zeleia added with a laugh. She sat on the tripod and plucked the cloth from the ample array of food. "I think I would have lost my appetite if I had to share a meal with Canace and the prince this evening. Will you join me?"
"Oh, no, m'lady!" Bia said with a shake of her head "The princess, she would have me flayed alive."
Zeleia drew in a sharp breath and replaced the cloth over the food. "I'm sorry, Bia. I'm not used to the ways of my uncle's house. Life is much simpler in Paos. And it's unfair that I can't share the company of those I prefer."
Unsure whether she was still speaking of only Bia, Zeleia frowned as she stood.
"If there's nothing else, m'lady—"
"Please don't go yet. I don't want to spend time with my cousin and the prince, but I don't want to be alone either."
"Then I must keep busy, m'lady, or the princess, she will punish me if she finds out." Bia looked around then went to the small chest that contained Zeleia's belongings and began to unpack.
Zeleia felt as if she should be doing something as well. She found her herb pouch and opened it. The gift from the goatherd lay nestled among the herbs. She took the jar out and held it up.
"My cousin is convinced it's a beauty potion, but I don't think the goatherd would carry something like that with him, do you?"
"No, m'lady," Bia agreed, shaking out a chiton. She examined the embroidery along the hems. "This design, it is very beautiful."
"That's my mother—my foster mother's needlework," Zeleia explained as she placed the small jar on the table next to the water amphora. "Metra is blessed by Athena and is considered the best with a needle in all of Paos. I never could sit still long enough to learn how to embroider properly. I always wanted to be outside instead, and Metra and Thoas indulged me far too often."
Zeleia surveyed the contents of her pouch. "I didn't bring a large supply of healing herbs with me."
"Apollo, he might be able to help you. He takes care of injuries and illnesses among the soldiers and slaves."
"Did he examine my uncle?"
"Oh, no. The princess, she would not allow it. Physicians from far and near were called in, but none of them could do anything for the king."
"I think...I think I can brew a tea that might help him regain some of his strength and stimulate his appetite." Zeleia retrieved a bowl from the basket Bia had brought. She sprinkled various herbs into it. "But his illness is unknown to me. And if trained physicians haven't been able to heal him, then there is nothing more I can do."
"Is there any way I can help, m'lady?"
"Could you bring me some boiling water? The herbs will need to steep and cool before I strain them."
"Yes, m'lady." Bia hastened from the room and soon returned with a steaming pot. Under Zeleia's direction, she poured the hot water into the bowl. Zeleia stirred the tea, then set a thickly folded cloth over the rim.
"There. When it cools, I'll dilute it with water and sweeten it with honey. I saw some in the basket, didn't I?"
"Yes, m'lady." Bia beamed. "Gyas is the beekeeper and his honey fetches the best prices in the agora."
"How wonderful! You're very proud of Gyas, aren't you?"
Bia bowed her head and folded her hands. "I-I don't know what you mean, m'lady."
"You and Gyas. I couldn't help but notice the two of you—"
"Oh, no, m'lady!" Bia's dark eyes grew round and filled with tears and she fell to her knees in front of Zeleia. "I beg of you, please do not tell the princess!"
Zeleia pulled the trembling girl to her feet, but Bia cowered, mumbling in her strange Æthiopian tongue. Zeleia led her to the bed and sat beside her, one arm around her tense shoulders.
"I promise I won't tell anyone."
Bia smiled through her tears and slid to the floor, winding her arms around Zeleia's knees. She spoke but in words Zeleia didn't understand.
"I'm sorry I don't know what you're saying," Zeleia prompted gently.
Bia drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I beg pardon, m'lady, but when I am excited or-or upset, I cannot seem to use these foreign words well."
"I promise I won't say anything," Zeleia said again as she urged Bia to her feet. "But why must it be kept a secret?"
"Slaves are not allowed to wed, unless the master gives special permission. King Danaus, he has never given permission for his slaves to wed. In the past, when a couple asks, he always says no. Later, one or the other is sold, to separate them. That is why no one must know about Gyas and me. I could not bear it if we were separated."
"Of course," Zeleia agreed. "You have my word."
"Thank you, m'lady. I did not mean to burden you with my troubles."
Zeleia shook her head. "You didn't. It's not a burden between friends."
"No, m'lady," Bia said sadly. "We cannot be friends."
Zeleia nodded and watched as Bia finished emptying the chest and shaking out the clothing. Zeleia helped her hang them up on pegs.
"Will there be anything else, m'lady?"
"I don't suppose you could stop calling me m'lady, could you?"
Bia shook her head, but smiled. "The princess—"
"—she wouldn't approve," Zeleia finished. She wasn't yet ready to be left alone. "What can you tell me about Apollo? He doesn't act like a slave, the way he stood up to Canace this afternoon."
Bia busied herself straightening the bed linen, but her brow knotted in confusion. "Apollo, h-he was just here one day. The slavemaster Androcles, he takes a count of the slaves at regular times. Soon after Apollo came, the count showed an extra one. Androcles, he was beside himself! Apollo's name was on the tablet, but another's had disappeared. He sold that slave, so the count would match the tablet."
"How strange," Zeleia commented as she walked around the bed opposite Bia.
"Strange, m'lady?" Bia asked. Her forehead had smoothed and she looked at Zeleia questioningly.
"Well, yes, I agree it's a strange thing to happen," Zeleia said as she ran her hands along the linen, flattening out the wrinkles.
Bia fluffed a down-filled pillow. "What strange thing happened?"
Zeleia had reached for the other pillow, but stopped and looked at Bia. The girl stared at her with a pleasantly blank expression.
"You just told me how Androcles found—"
"Androcles!" Bia set the pillow in its place with one last fluff. "He is a slave, too, but he thinks he is better than the rest of us."
"You don't remember telling me about Androcles? And Apollo being an extra—"
"Oh, no, m'lady. You must have heard about Androcles from someone else." She took the other pillow from Zeleia and fluffed it as well, then set it beside the first.
"Yes, I-I supposed I did."
How could Bia have no recollection of relating the story of Apollo's sudden appearance? Could she have a mental affliction? Zeleia hadn't noticed any aberration in her behavior during their journey to Iotia. Bia had acted more stable than Canace!
When Zeleia could find no explanation for Bia's lapse in memory, Zeleia said nothing more about the incident. By the time they finished tidying up, the infusion had steeped long enough. Bia watched closely as Zeleia strained the dark liquid, diluted it with water, and stirred in a generous amount of honey.
Bia accompanied her down the stairs and showed her the hall that lead to her uncle.
"I must go now and ready the princess' chamber. She will retire soon."
Zeleia bade her good night, then hastened down the hall to her uncle's chambers.
Echion frowned when he answered the timid knock and saw Zeleia.
"Is my uncle asleep?" she asked.
Shaking his head, Echion closed the door behind her.
"No, m'lady," he whispered. "Resting. M'lord king doesn't sleep well these days."
"You look tired, too," Zeleia remarked. "Do you watch over the king all the time?"
Echion's eyes widened. He was once again surprised by her concern. Didn't the king or princess ever think about anyone's needs except their own?
"Yes, m'lady," he said.
"Who's there?" the king called out frantically, rising from his pillow. "Why are you whispering? Come here into the light where I can see who you are?"
Echion hastened to his side and bowed. "M'lord, it is your niece, the Princess Zeleia."
"So she's calling herself a princess now!"
"Oh, no, Uncle," Zeleia assured him, although she had every right to use the title if she wished. "I'm sure I don't possess the qualities to be a princess."
If he noticed the hint of sarcasm, he gave no indication, but Echion looked at her with amusement in his faded eyes.
"What are you doing here?" the king asked peevishly and sank back into his pillows, closing his eyes.
"To see how you're feeling. And—"
"I feel no better or worse than usual," he said.
"And I've brought you something that should help. If Echion will bring a cup..."
"Of course he will!" he snapped, then his eyes popped open to glare at her. "Why do you need a cup?"
"I made an infusion, a tea of herbs," Zeleia explained as Echion hastened to do the king's bidding. "It should increase your strength and help you to sleep more restfully."
Zeleia removed the cloth cover and tipped the bowl over, pouring the liquid into the cup Echion held. She set the bowl aside and took the cup. The king grimaced when she held it out to him.
"Tea? What tea can do all that?"
"I have a way with herbs. It won't cure your ailment, but it should ease the symptoms."
"No!" His thin hand flailed at the cup, and Zeleia barely managed to prevent him from knocking it out of her hands. "How do I know what's in it? Are you trying to poison me? Echion, get help!"
Shocked by the accusation, Zeleia stepped back a pace. Echion hesitated, then quietly asked, "Should I call the guards?"
"Wait, uncle." Zeleia did the only thing she could think of to convince him she meant no harm. She put the cup to her lips and swallowed a mouthful, refusing to make a face at the bitter aftertaste. "Would I drink the tea if I had poisoned it?"
The king had ceased flailing, but he scowled at her. "You could have already taken the antidote. Echion, take a drink!"
The aged servant's eyes widened, but he reached for the cup.
"Don't be afraid," Zeleia said as she placed it in his trembling hands. "I'm trying to help my uncle, not harm him."
Echion took a sip, his face wrinkling at the bitterness, and they waited until the king was satisfied his servant would not drop dead. He nodded and Echion gave him the cup. He stared down into the liquid.
"I've lost count of the number of physicians and healers who said there is nothing they can do to cure this disease that ravages my body. What makes you think your concoction will help?"
"I'm sorry. It won't cure you, but it should help restore your strength and allow you to sleep."
"Hmph." He sniffed, then took a sip. "Nasty stuff."
"I sweetened it with a little honey. I'll add more next time."
Echion brought out a tripod, and Zeleia sat quietly, watching her uncle as he sipped the tea. She had dozens of questions to ask about her father, but King Danaus looked tired and didn't seem amenable to being interrogated. When Canace came to Paos and told them who she was, she had explained that the king and his brother had been estranged for many years.
By Iotian tradition, Cilix, as the younger son, should have inherited the throne. But Cilix was headstrong and wanted a life unfettered by responsibility. He had left one day without telling anyone and never returned. The rule of Iotia had passed to Danaus.
Unfettered by responsibility could also mean the responsibility of a child. With his wife dead, what would a seafaring man do with a babe? But why hadn't he brought his child here to be raised by blood kin instead of leaving her with complete strangers? If there was a reason, would her uncle tell her? Zeleia thought not.
"Do you want something else?" King Danaus' voice, as feeble as it was, crashed the silence.
"No, I thought I'd sit with you a while, that's all."
"Why? What do you want?" he asked again.
"Nothing." She stood and straightened her skirt. "I can leave if you wish."
He nodded, drained the cup, and closed his eyes. "I need to rest."
"Of course. I'll visit with you again tomorrow with more tea. Good night."
He grunted and Zeleia took it as a sign of dismissal.
Back in her chamber, she saw that Bia had straightened up where she'd prepared the tea and left an oil lamp burning. Suddenly ravenous, Zeleia realized she hadn't eaten since the morning meal.
When she'd finished the food that Bia had provided, Zeleia scrubbed her teeth with cleansing powder then changed from chiton to a simple sleeping shift. She extinguished the light before slipping into bed. Even though the down mattress was much more luxurious than the one filled with straw back home, she missed her small bed in her small room. She missed home.
Even so, she didn't dream of home when she finally drifted off to sleep. She dreamt of Apollo.
Just before dawn, the distant sound of lyre music summoned Zeleia from her restful slumber. At first, she thought the music was left over from some faraway dreamscape she had visited in her sleep, but the longer she lay unmoving in the darkness, listening to the lovely melody, the more she realized she hadn't dreamt it at all.
Wondering where it came from, Zeleia sat up and threw back the fine linen coverings. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and set her feet on the cool floor. Padding to the window, a quickening breeze billowed the light summer drapery around her and lifted her hair from her shoulders. She crossed her arms against the morning chill.
The music lured her closer, and she bumped the window sill before she knew she had taken any steps. The slight jolt brought her to her senses, but she still felt the draw of the music. The rhythm thrummed through her body, filled her heart with yearning, clouded her mind with visions of lofty peaks and mist-covered ground.
Zeleia didn't know how long the music held her entranced, but it was Bia's voice that brought her back. "M'lady! What are you doing?"
Suddenly, Zeleia saw that the sky had turned from bluish-black to light blue with the rosy, golden tints of dawn. She felt strange, light-headed, as if she had been drugged with one of her own concoctions and was only now shaking off the last of the effects.
"Don't you hear it?" she asked, her voice sounding hollow and lost to her own ears. She cleared her throat.
"What, m'lady?" Bia tugged on her arm. "Please, please, come down. You might fall."
Zeleia looked down to discover she had climbed the window sill, and one leg dangled over the outer edge as if she meant to jump the frightfully long distance to the flagstone courtyard below.
"It's stopped now," Zeleia said and frowned as she allowed Bia to help her down. Had she been trying to follow the music? Why had she tried to go out the window? She whirled around to face Bia. "Did you hear it? It was the most beautiful lyre music I've ever heard? Did you hear it before it stopped?"
Bia shook her head. "No, m'lady, I-I did not."
Zeleia looked into Bia's wide eyes and saw her fright. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you. I-I was sitting in the window listening to the music, but—but I must have still been dreaming."
The explanation washed the troubled expression from Bia's eyes, and she broke out into a smile. "Yes, m'lady, a dream is all it was. If you like, I can arrange your hair for you."
Zeleia nodded. She dressed into a clean chiton and sat still while Bia combed the tangles from her hair. She had still been half asleep, she chided herself. She was unaccustomed to waking in a bed other than her straw-filled mattress, so it was no surprise she'd felt disoriented. After everything that happened, it was a wonder she hadn't experienced a more restless night, but Hypnos and Oneiros had been good to her. Hypnos had allowed her a sound night's sleep, and Oneiros had gifted her with pleasant dreams of Apollo. Dreams she now couldn't recall after her fright, but she remembered the feelings they had invoked. Perhaps the music really had been a part of her dreams.
Bia pulled her hair back to the crown of her head and then brought it forward, over one shoulder, in a deceptively complex braid and tied it off with a leather thong. Zeleia looked at herself in a piece of polished bonze and was pleased with the result. It was much prettier than the simple weave Zeleia usually made when it was hot or she tired of flyaway strands in her face.
She thanked Bia, and the handmaiden bowed and left, returning to her chores. Zeleia remained behind a while longer. She crossed the room to the window and stared into the distance. The breeze had died and birds in nearby trees chirped their morning greetings. The muted conversation of servants and field workers going about their tasks drifted through the window.
But Zeleia didn't believe she had been dreaming. She had heard the lyre music, and it's sweet song had awakened her. She remembered getting out of bed and going to the window. She remembered bumping into the sill...although she had to admit she didn't recall taking those last few steps and much of what occurred after, until Bia grabbed her arm, was a blur. But why hadn't Bia heard the music? Was this another of her strange lapses, the same kind of aberration that made her mention Apollo's unusual appearance and then deny she'd said anything?
Shaking her head, Zeleia hastened from her chamber. She could ponder the problem later when thoughts would keep her mind occupied while household tasks kept her hands busy.
Handmaidens were already busy at work in the shaded portico of the inner courtyard. They spun and wove the wool that would clothe the members of the house of King Danaus. Zeleia noticed that Princess Canace was not in attendence.
The others eyed her mistrustfully until they saw she worked as hard as any of them. Spinning and weaving were not among her favorite chores although she had often helped her mother, Metra. Zeleia preferred to be out of doors, wandering the woods or preparing her herbs, but she knew that she would better gain the acceptance of the servants as a member of the household if she did her share. Later, in the afternoon, she could explore the gardens to see what herbs were available.
After a while, Zeleia easily chatted with the others as they worked, answering their questions about her life in Arcadia. A woman named Arete was the only one to watch her with hateful dark eyes or ignore her, by turns. Zeleia didn't know why Arete didn't seem to like her, but she treated the woman the same as she did the others and hoped she would be able to dispel Arete's hostility.
When she casually mentioned the lyre music that had awakened her, the others denied hearing anything before dawn, and the conversation moved to other things. Zeleia wondered if she hadn't dreamt it, after all.
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IMMORTAL CONQUEST excerpt ©2002 Lanette Curington
Greek graphic from the font Greek Art.