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Immortal Conquest

IMMORTAL CONQUEST BY LANETTE CURINGTON

A discarded princess… A disgraced god…
Love triumphs in the aftermath of…
Immortal Conquest
The romance of Zeleia and Apollo.

Raised by foster parents, Zeleia discovers she is the niece of a king. While visiting 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 allows himself to fall in love with Zeleia, he breaks a sacred oath, but if he doesn’t, his heart will break in two.

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.

A Greek myth fantasy romance novel.

Coming in late 2011 from Silver Heart Books.

EXCERPT — Updated 10/12/11 to add three more chapters.
(Prologue and six chapters — unedited and unproofed)
 
 


 

Prologue: Mount Olympus

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…
 
 


 

Chapter I

The traveling wagon ground to a halt and Zeleia, awakened from a restless sleep, tumbled to the floor amid pottery, water skins, 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.”

“But Canace—”

“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.”

“Farewell, sire.”

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.

“M’lady.”

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.
 
 


 

Chapter II

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 water skins 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.
 
 


 

Chapter III

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 Aethiopian 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 mem’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.
 
 


 

Chapter IV

Apollo enjoyed the sun on his back and the wind in his hair as he walked toward the river ahead of the group of women. The palace well had dried up the day after the princess returned with her cousin five days before, and fetching water had become a twice daily chore for the women. As usual, Princess Canace had not joined them, but Lady Zeleia had pitched in to help the first day. She had suggested hauling the heavy amphoras to and from the river in the wagon instead of carrying them.

Six months, Apollo thought to keep his mind off of Zeleia as he searched the sandy bank, and six months to go. In another six months he could regain his godhood, find out what happened to the nymph Callianeira, and confront Zeus with the truth.

In the beginning, he had readily accepted his fate. After all, what was one year to an immortal? But this banishment was different from the one he’d shared long ago with his uncle Poseidon. With powers intact, they had made short work of building the walls of the city of Troy.

Now, he became impatient with this mundane, repetitive mortal life. If he had his powers, he could have repaired the well with a wave of his hand…unless the Hydriad of the spring that fed the well withheld the water for a reason. If so, he dared not overrule her decision.

Nothing more dangerous than a stag had passed this way according to the prints in the sand. Apollo turned to motion for the women to proceed, but instead came face-to-face with the handmaiden Arete.

“Look at them.” She tossed her head toward the clutch of women awaiting his signal. “They cower like frightened hens.”

Apollo looked and his eyes rested on Lady Zeleia. Yes, the others huddled together, but Zeleia stood near the wagon talking to Xiphenos and laughed in response to something he said. A pang drove through his chest with the keen edge of a knife. He wanted to be the one to make her laugh. He wanted—

“If they had any sense they would know there are no such things as monsters,” Arete continued, interrupting his thoughts.

When the well was found to be dry, several slaves had been lowered down by ropes to remove the supposed blockage, but none had returned and the ropes had gone slack. Another team of slaves were sent down, but only one had managed to crawl out again.

“You don’t believe in monsters?” Apollo asked, his curiosity about why she didn’t share the beliefs of the others overriding his interest in Lady Zeleia for a moment. “Then what happened to the men who disappeared in the well?”

Arete shrugged. “A sharp outcropping of rock frayed the ropes and they fell to their deaths, I suppose.”

That might be true enough. They had pulled up the ropes to find the ends in tatters.

“What about Ninas?” he asked.

“Oh, Ninas was smart enough to climb out before the rope broke.”

Or scared enough. Apollo had arrived just as Ninas emerged wild-eyed and babbling incoherently about fiery eyes and bloody bones. The notion of a monster in the well swept through the ranks of slaves and guards alike. Since then, the women refused to attend their outdoor tasks unaccompanied and no one entered the courtyard surrounding the well.

Arete moved in closer and lightly ran her fingertips along his arm. Apollo frowned. Many times since his arrival, Arete had suggested they become lovers although King Danaus forbade intimacy amongst his slaves. He had always managed to put her off without offending her, and he thought she had given up.

Apollo’s frown deepened as a sound drifted toward him. Zeleia was laughing again. He’d never found Xiphenos that amusing.

“Your name suits you, the name of a god,” Arete breathed huskily. “The most handsome god of all.”

It took all of Apollo’s willpower not to toss her hand away. He stepped sideways as if he’d lost his footing in the shifting sand, effectively removing his arm from beneath her intrusive fingers.

“Then you’ve seen the god Apollo?” he asked, but he watched as Zeleia leaned in close to Xiphenos and briefly rested a hand on his shoulder. The two were deep in serious discussion now and the knife twisted more fiercely in his chest.

Why had Arete approached him now? Every day, twice a day, after he examined the bank by the river, Zeleia had come ahead of the others to ask if it was safe. They would spend a few moments in idle chatter then Zeleia would return to help fill the amphoras. He had to admit he hadn’t yet tried to summon the Hydriad because he looked forward to the time alone with her. Now, Arete had spoiled their time together.

“Well, no…” Arete began and laid her hand against the coarse cloth of his shirt, fondling the fabric. “But I would know him if I saw him.”

A muscle twitched in his jaw as he looked down at Arete. He didn’t know if he suppressed a laugh at her words or a growl at the irritating closeness of Zeleia and Xiphenos. Both, he decided. “Would you? What if he was disguised as a trader or beggar—or slave?”

“I would know a god when I saw one!” Arete declared and moved close enough that the length of their bodies touched. “Who wouldn’t? The gods are more beautiful, more intelligent, more…more than mortals. But why do we speak of the gods? They care nothing for slaves or we wouldn’t be slaves.”

“Careful, Arete. A god may be listening,” he admonished and eased away from her.

“I don’t care! Because the gods certainly don’t care.” Arete closed the distance between them again. “If they cared, I would be a king’s daughter like Princess Canace. I would live in luxury and choose not to haul water if I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t be the daughter of a slave destined to serve others the rest of my life.”

“The gods care, but what we are rests in the hands of the Fates. Neither of us has the power to change our destiny,” he said thoughtfully and wondered whom he tried to convince more, Arete or himself.

“Are you content to be a slave?” Arete pressed closer to him, coming into contact with the hardness in the center of his body.

A wicked smile crossed her full lips. “You do desire me. Come to me tonight, Apollo. We will pretend you are a god, and I will obey your every command,” she whispered enticingly. Her warm breath tickled his cheek as her arms slid up and around his shoulders.

Arete might have been tempting even though he was not particularly attracted to her. She was pretty enough with slanted dark eyes and long, tangling curls the color of rich earth. However, she was much too bold for his taste, and he probably wouldn’t have accepted her offer even if he hadn’t taken that rashly spoken vow. He preferred a more modest maiden, in demeanor if not in fact. A modest maiden much like the Lady Zeleia.

Apollo smiled down at her, hoping to soften the blow of rejection. He started to disengage her arms, but she suddenly sprang away from him, laughing seductively. “Tonight, Apollo!” she sang then dashed back toward the group of women.

“Is—Is it safe now?” Lady Zeleia said softly from behind him.

He closed his eyes briefly. In those few words, he heard her disappointment and heartache. Words of denial danced on his tongue, but how could he openly renounce any feelings for Arete when to do so meant he must admit something existed between Zeleia and himself?

“Safe as always,” he answered instead.

“I’ll tell the others.”

He heard her start back up the bank when the word tore from his mouth. “Wait.”

He had vowed not to encourage her. Not a Stygian vow, but one he meant to keep nonetheless. He turned around and saw a hurt in her eyes that matched the distress in her voice. With Arete’s suggestive actions and parting words, Zeleia had to think he dallied with the handmaiden. If he let her continue to think so, she wouldn’t be tempted to explore the attraction between them.

Zeleia suffered a little now, but if he didn’t do all he could to protect her, she would suffer much more later. The women he loved always did.

“Yes?” she said stiffly.

“My lady,” he said formally. “I’m sorry if I sounded disrespectful. With your permission, I want to examine your injury.”

Her hand fluttered near the cut on her forehead.

“But— Of course,” she stammered and visibly braced herself against his approach.

He stood as close to her as he could without touching. She focused on something in the distance and wouldn’t look at him, but her breathing had deepened and her lips were parted. He wanted nothing more than to taste her, plunder her mouth, and hear a moan of surprise when he suckled on the tip of her tongue.

Instead, he brushed back loose strands of her hair and peered closely at the cut.

“It has almost healed,” he observed.

“Yes…just as you said this morning,” she reminded him with a hint of humor.

“So I did.” In truth, he’d forgotten that he looked at the cut and made the same comment earlier in the day. He forgot many things in her presence and wanted to forget many more.

“If you’ve finished, then I should help with the water.”

“Of course, my lady.”

She clambered up the bank and hastened to help the others carry the empty amphoras to the river, fill them, and then return them to the wagon. Xiphenos tossed him a grin then lent a hand as well. The first day, the women had decided that Apollo should keep watch rather than help out, too, so he strolled along the stretch of sand until the last of the amphoras were filled.

Arete walked from the wagon, a jar balanced on a well-rounded hip. Its weight drew her chiton tight, almost exposing one breast, the rosy tip barely concealed by the taut material.

“Can I expect you tonight?” she said low enough so that only he could hear.

Apollo drew in a sharp breath. “No, Arete—”

“I know you like women, but you’ve never sought the company of any of us. Do you set your sights higher?” she snapped with a toss of her head in Lady Zeleia’s direction.

“Fill your jar, Arete. It’s almost time to head back to the palace.”

She took a step closer. “Be careful of what you desire, slave Apollo. You may obtain it, but in the end you are merely a slave like the rest of us. Do change your mind soon,” she added, her voice softening, becoming intimate. “I don’t know how long I can wait for you to fill my jar.”

With a last, lingering look, she walked to the water’s edge.

Apollo shook his head and followed the rest of the women to the wagon. They waited for Arete then followed the wagon toward the palace. Zeleia stayed near the front while Apollo brought up the rear.

When the amphoras had been unloaded and the oxen team unhitched, Apollo left Xiphenos to finish in the stable.

Now that his time alone with Zeleia had been spoiled—all for the best, he repeatedly told himself—he would find out why the well had gone dry.

* * * * *

Zeleia busied herself with tidying her room. She allowed Bia and the others to do the heavy cleaning, but she insisted on picking up after herself and straightening her own things. She wasn’t accustomed to having servants and she found doing menial chores left her with little time to think.

That wasn’t strictly true. Menial chores were done by habit and didn’t involve the mind. Of course, she had time to think, but keeping busy didn’t leave her time to brood.

She shouldn’t be angry if Apollo courted the handmaiden Arete. After all, they were equals and had known each other much longer than Apollo had known Zeleia. Apollo was an attractive, virile man. It was natural for him to seek the company of an attractive woman. And Arete was an attractive woman…if one liked women with coarse features and outspoken ways. That wasn’t strictly true, either. Arete truly was pretty.

Zeleia plopped down on the edge of the bed.

She could admit she was jealous. She believed jealousy wasn’t a bad thing as long as one admitted it, didn’t become embittered by it, and proceeded to do something about it. She had two choices: forget Apollo or win him.

Neither would be easy. Zeleia didn’t think she could ever forget Apollo and looking up into his summersky eyes for the first time. She’d never before met a man whom she wanted to respond to her as a woman and not merely a healer.

But how could she win him? If she stayed in Iotia, her uncle Danaus would be responsible for her and would never allow her to wed a slave. If she returned to Paos, Metra and Thoas wouldn’t care who she wed as long as she was happy, but Apollo would still be here. And all of this depended on whether Apollo desired her as much as she desired him.

Soon, Bia would arrive with her evening meal. Zeleia usually ate with the others by the hearth, but earlier she had asked Bia to bring a basket to her chamber. She didn’t feel like facing Arete who had slung vile glares in her direction on the way back from the river. This morn, Arete had made it perfectly clear why she didn’t like Zeleia.

Zeleia stood and walked to the window, gazing out over the back courtyards and gardens. Beyond the first field of grapevines and in the center of a grove of olive trees, a dense circular stand of trees formed a darker shape against the encroaching shadows of early evening. Bia had told her the stand of trees protected a small, open colonnade, a shrine to the god Apollo that was no longer in use. To the far left, beyond the ornamental trees that lined the short walls separating the various courtyards, was the palace well.

A man stood beside the stone rim in the only spot of light which glowed around him. The light wasn’t bright, but it was enough that she could see him clearly where everything else was dim and indistinct. She recognized the Phrygian leggings molded to long, lean legs and the fall of sun-kissed curls down his back, and warmth surged through her.

She dismissed Arete more easily than she could have imagined a few moments before. All she wanted was to be near him again, to look into his eyes and become lost in them. She wanted—

“He is quite handsome, is he not?” Bia asked, suddenly by her side. Zeleia started, so immersed in watching Apollo she hadn’t heard Bia enter. Bia was watching Apollo, too.

“Yes, he is,” Zeleia agreed with a smile.

Apollo made a sudden movement then leaned over the rim, his head tilting occasionally. Unfortunately, tree limbs partially blocked her view.

“Do you see anyone else with him?” Zeleia asked and leaned farther out the window, trying to get a better look.

“No, m’lady, I do not see anyone else.”

Then Zeleia thought she caught a glimmer of water in the air above the well, no more than the sprinkling of a few drops caught in the ray of light surrounding Apollo.

“Did you see that?”

“What, m’lady?”

“I thought I saw—” Zeleia looked up at the cloudless sky and shrugged. “Never mind. It doesn’t look like rain, does it?”

“No, m’lady. I left the basket on the table. If there is nothing else, I need to attend the princess.”

“One more thing.” Zeleia indicated the well with a tilt of her chin. “How do I get there from here?”

* * * * *

Apollo rested his crossed arms atop the stone wall surrounding the mouth of the well and peered into the deep blackness. Fed by an underground spring from the nearby mountain, the well was under the protection of the Hydriad who guarded its source. He wasn’t in full possession of his powers, but he should be able to call up a water nymph.

“I, Phoebus Apollo,” he began and waited while the soft reverberations against the moss-covered stones that lined the shaft faded and died. “I summon thee, most gracious and beauteous lady, to appear before me at they will.”

Even a god had to carefully word the summons—to persuade, not command. Most nymphs were pleasant and amenable, yet some were not. He didn’t personally know the nymph of this spring, but he suspected she was intemperate since Ninas reported fiery eyes and bloody bones. Use of the archaic language preferred by most nymphs almost always succeeded. Almost always.

Apollo waited, listening for any indication the Hydriad responded to his words, but he heard nothing. Perhaps he was too mortal or she might need more coaxing.

He drew a breath to call once more when he heard the faint rumbling from deep within the earth. The sound grew louder as a slight vibration rippled through the ground beneath his feet, the result of a nymph traveling at high speed along the underground waterway.

With an ear-splitting crack, a form shot from the well in a flume of fine mist. She hovered without wavering, her arms folded hand-to-elbow in front of her and her head at the same level as his so that her lower body disappeared into the well. Unclothed, her long lustrous hair the color of sun struck rain, fell over her shoulders and sheathed her body, covering her completely. She stared at him with huge, luminous eyes like pools of sky-dappled water.

“We art Thoe. We cometh at thy behest.” She spoke of herself in the plural, in the old way of the nymphs, and her voice was hollow as if he were hearing only the sharp echo instead of her true voice.

“I am grateful, O gracious lady,” Apollo acknowledged solemnly and bowed his head.

“We hesitated for thou art disgraced. Thou hast fallen out of favor with the Great Father.”

“Yea, what thou sayeth is true.”

“Why dost thou summon the Hydriad?”

“I am in need of knowledge, Lady, of this man-made well in thy domain.”

“Thou hast not the right!” she protested crisply. “Thy voice is weak, and we seeketh not to displease the Great Father.”

He sensed she was ready to bolt, to return underground as quickly as she had come. So he did what any desperate god would do—his hand shot out and grabbed her hair, winding the silken strands around his arm. She thrashed in his grip, her arms and legs churning the air. He held her fast with all of his strength, and only by what small amount of divinity left to him did he succeed.

“A temporary state, as you well know,” he said in Hellene, foregoing the ancient tongue-twisting language. “In a short time, I will once more claim my rightful place on Olympus. Now, I understand your concern about not angering Zeus, but you should also be concerned with not angering me.”

She struggled against his hold a few moments more then went rigid. “What dost thou wish to know?” she snapped, the words as sharp as shattering crystal.

Apollo expelled a breath of air in relief, thankful she had yielded. He didn’t know how much longer he could have held her.

“First, what happened to the men who descended into the well?”

Her eyes brightened with an infernal light, and her lips curled back to reveal pointed teeth. “Thou knowest what happens to mortal man when he trespasseth into our domain.”

“Then why did you permit the last one to escape.”

“We allowed him to glimpse us in our full glory so he wouldst stop others from intruding.” Her chilling smile grew wider. “Our thirst wast slaked.”

So Ninas wasn’t a coward, after all. A Hydriad in full glory was an awful sight indeed. Ninas was fortunate he hadn’t been blinded, struck dumb, and driven mad. He’d gotten off lightly with babbling incoherency for a few days.

“Art thou finished?”

“No. Why do you keep the water from the well?”

“The mortal who owns the well hast broken faith. He doth not deserve the use of our sacred water.”

“What has he done?”

“Evil intention doth abide in his heart toward an innocent member of his house.”

“Princess Canace?” Apollo asked in surprise. As far as he knew, the king doted on his only child.

“Nay.”

“Then who—” There was only one other family member. “Lady Zeleia.”

“Verily.”

Apollo shook his head. “The king is ill and brought Zeleia here to meet him before he died. Why would he harm his niece?”

“We knoweth not why. We are not prophetic,” she said pointedly.

“Neither am I, at the moment.” Although the nymph was very slender, his arm was tiring. “What can I do to convince you to return the water to the well?”

“Thou canst protect the Lady Zeleia.”

“With my life,” he said as naturally as if he pledged his life every day.

“We wilt watch and know if thee fail.” Thoe closed her eyes and bowed her head. “Our sacred water wilt return before the dawn.”

Apollo loosened his hold, but as he thanked her, she dropped into the shaft with a spray of water and was gone. He felt the fading vibration in the earth as she sped home to her mountain spring.

Evil intentions toward Lady Zeleia? He had solved one mystery only to be confronted with another.
 
 


 

Chapter V

Bia’s dark eyes grew wide. “But, m’lady, you know no one goes near the well since…”

“Except Apollo,” Zeleia pointed out.

Bia shrugged. “Apollo, he is different. He is not afraid of the monster.”

Zeleia was present when the slaves were lost in the well and the one called Ninas was the only one to return. Something had frightened him, but it may have been the loss of his companions and fear for his own life more than anything else. Fallen torches could look like eyes of fire or bloody bones in the pitch blackness of the shaft. She understood how superstitious some people could be. She had encountered it often enough in Paos when rumors spread of some monster haunting the forest, but she had roamed the wilds most of her life and never encountered anything other than the animals that belonged there.

More than likely the earth had shifted and blocked the underground course. Something caused the earth to move and Zeleia wasn’t sure what that could be. The gods were capricious, at best. Who could understand their motives?

“I need to speak with Apollo. I’ve used up nearly all the herbs I brought with me making Uncle Danaus’ tea each evening. Some aren’t in the garden or out of season. Apollo’s a healer, so he should be able to help me. Please show me the way.”

Bia nodded. “I can show you the way to the back courtyards.”

They hastened down the stairs, past the inner courtyard and great hall, and through a little maze of smaller hallways and rooms until they came to the back door that led into the courtyard around the well.

“I need to finish my chores, m’lady,” Bia said, backing away from the door. “Can you find your way to your chamber again?”

“Yes, I think so. Thank you, Bia.”

“Be careful, m’lady,” Bia cautioned before scurrying down the hall.

Zeleia stood a moment and watched as Apollo stared down into the well. Shadows had lengthened considerably as twilight encroached on the last ray of sunlight that glinted in the dark gold of his hair and limned his body. Zeleia’s stomach fluttered. Her purpose in coming out here was to ask if he could help replenish her supply of herbs, but seeing him again, being near him again caused the same strange reactions within…even though she knew he and Arete were lovers.

Taking a deep breath, she started across the grassy expanse between them. Before she had gone halfway, he turned with the intention of striding off in another direction. When he saw her, he stopped and smiled as he waited for her.

“Good evening, my lady,” he said with a slight incline of his head.

“Good evening,” she murmured. She fixated on his generous mouth, full lips curving slightly. She wondered how they would feel pressed to her own. He had come very close to kissing her earlier by the river. Had Arete’s presence stopped him? Would he have kissed her if Arete hadn’t been there to witness? Would she have let him, knowing what she did about him and Arete?

“Are you feeling well? Your injury is healing nicely. You shouldn’t have any ill effects now.”

“Oh. No, I’m fine. I’ve been making an infusion for Uncle Danaus each evening,” she began and turned to face the well. Perhaps if she didn’t have to look into his gorgeous eyes or see his inviting smile, she could think more clearly. She rested her hands on the rim of the well. Frowning, she glanced down. The stones were mottled dark with splashes of water. When she pulled her hands away, they were damp.

“Look,” she said and waved toward the wet stones. “Why are the stones wet if the well is still dry?”

He didn’t answer but instead took the hand she gestured with between his own. “Did the king drink your tea?”

“Y-Yes.” She couldn’t think straight with his cool fingers holding hers captive, his light eyes searching hers. She slipped her hand from his and moved farther along the rim. “The first night, he thought I might be trying to poison him. I drank a little to prove nothing was wrong with the tea, but he was convinced I had already taken an antidote. He had Echion taste it before he would try it.”

Apollo followed closely, too close for her comfort.

“The king is—” he began harshly then shook his head. “The king is your uncle, and I shouldn’t say anything unfavorable about him.”

She shrugged. “I barely know him. Or my cousin. What I do know, I don’t find particularly pleasant.”

“I’m glad he is taking your tea. Neither he nor the princess would consider my offer of help.”

Zeleia smiled wanly, wishing he would give her space to breathe properly. Her chest constricted and she couldn’t seem to get enough air into her body. “S-Sometimes being a healer isn’t easy. I-I came to-to ask…”

Her words trailed off as she sidestepped along the rim to get away from him.

“To ask me what, my lady?” Apollo’s voice had grown huskier, and he moved a few paces to keep up with her.

“To-To ask you—” she stammered. Taking a deep breath, she turned around so that her back was to the well. She tried to focus on something in the distance, a tree or shrub, anything except Apollo. The evasive action had worked this morning by the river. She didn’t feel nearly as befuddled when she was looking elsewhere.

But turning around had been a mistake because he slipped into her view and she found herself gazing at the deep hollow of his throat. What would it feel like to press her mouth into that little angle of bone? “Herbs!” she blurted out at last.

“Herbs?” A burnished eyebrow arched over summersky blue.

“The tea for my uncle. I’ve made the infusion each night and I’m running low on some of the herbs. You’re a healer, and I hoped you would have the herbs for the tea and prepare it when I’m gone. If you prefer, I can show Bia how to make the tea, but you’ll still have to supply her with the herbs. She doesn’t know them as well as you or I. And…”

Zeleia had almost recovered her senses by talking about what she knew best, but she lost them again when his head lowered toward hers.

“And?” he prompted.

She had never been kissed. Back home, all of the girls her age had already wed, carried a child on their hips, and most had another in their bellies. Exposure—leaving an unwanted child, especially a girl child, exposed to the elements—was an uncommon occurrence in the small village of Paos. Because she thought she had been exposed as an infant, abandoned and unwanted, she had always felt out of place, as if she didn’t belong. Her insecurity had been mistaken for aloofness by others so that she had no close friends and no young men would woo her. The only place she felt she ever belonged was the safety of her home with Metra and Thoas.

No boy had ever kissed her, and certainly no man such as Apollo had ever stood this close, his body less than a handbreadth from hers, his head tilted and lips parted. Zeleia closed her eyes and waited…

…and waited…and waited…

Her eyes fluttered open to find him gone, and with him the last vestiges of sunlight. Twilight had fully settled and cast a gray, dull light over everything. Embarrassment burned her cheeks when she realized he’d chosen not to kiss her. Then tears flooded her eyes, spilling hotly when she blinked. Why should he kiss her? Why should he do more than tease and taunt her when he had Arete, his equal with little complications, waiting for him each night?

She stumbled around to lean over the well rim, tears coursing down her face, and her sandaled foot slipped in the loose rubble at the base.

Barely conscious of what she was doing, she bent and grabbed a small handful of pebbles. A young girl’s game, a silly ritual to forecast if the boy she liked was her true love. She dropped a pebble into the well with each mumbled accounting: “One to find him, one to keep him, one to let him go.”

Zeleia repeated the nonsense until the last pebble dropped on “one to hold him” then she turned and ran back into the palace.

By the time she returned to her chamber, her tears had dried. Bia had returned and left a pot of hot water to make the infusion. Thoughts elsewhere, Zeleia quickly mixed the herbs and poured the hot water over them, covering the bowl with a thick cloth. She nibbled at the meal Bia had left earlier, but she wasn’t very hungry.

If the last pebble had been “to find him”, she would know she hadn’t yet met her true love or “to let him go” meant the one she thought she loved wasn’t her true love. But “to hold him” told her what was already in her heart.

Zeleia sighed. It was a silly, childish game and didn’t mean anything! The infusion had steeped long enough. She strained the liquid and sweetened it with honey, then added fresh water from the amphora to dilute the concentrate. She covered the bowl with the cloth to prevent spillage, and headed for her uncle’s chambers.

Night had fallen and oil lamps set into the walls lighted her way. She descended the stairs, careful to jostle the bowl as little as possible. As she approached the inner courtyard, she heard high-pitched laughter immediately recognizable as belonging to her cousin. Muted sounds of conversation grew louder. She was not in the mood to face the princess and prince. Almost before she realized what she was doing, she squeezed into a darkened alcove behind an exquisitely painted urn taller than she and hoped they passed by quickly.

* * * * *

Eris had blended perfectly with the foliage so that Apollo wasn’t aware of her presence. She was invisible to the mortal eye although an immortal—or perhaps Apollo if he could notice anything else besides Zeleia when she was near—would see a subtle shifting of the air. She waited patiently for the slave woman to come out of hiding.

A few minutes after Zeleia ran inside, the woman named Arete crawled from the safety of the bushes nearby. Arete had seen the interaction between Apollo and Zeleia and didn’t like it at all. Eris cackled with glee at the fierce frown she wore, but of course Arete couldn’t hear her either. Arete’s jealousy would work perfectly into her plans.

As Eris stepped closer, the air around her disrupted, and Arete rubbed her arm as if something had brushed against her skin, the only indication she might sense a divine presence.

Apollo wants her,” Eris’ displaced voice, several tones beyond what a mortal could consciously hear, reinforced Arete’s jealousy. Arete didn’t respond as Eris continued speaking, but the meaning penetrated the woman’s subconscious. She would do what was needed when the time came. “Remember…remember Zeleia at the well,” Eris finished as she passed her hands in front of Arete’s forehead.

Then Eris vanished in a puff of aether as Arete shivered and ran across the courtyard into the palace.

* * * * *

Apollo slammed his fist into the post and winced as sharp pains shot through his knuckles. For a moment, he’d forgotten his mortal state and how vulnerable he was, but the ache in his fingers reminded him all too well. He strode through the stable and plunged his hand into the watering barrel, startling Chaos. The cold water eased the throbbing somewhat.

“Easy, boy,” he said distractedly.

He shouldn’t have left her without some explanation. He had humiliated her as well as himself. He shouldn’t have tempted her in the first place, but he could think of no other way to avert her attention from the wet stones and the questions that were sure to follow. And, to be brutally honest, he had wanted to kiss her.

Rejecting her, coupled with her “knowledge” that Arete and he were lovers, would ensure that she would stay away from him. She was as drawn to him as he was to her, but he couldn’t have her because of his oath. She was the niece of a king and would cause trouble for them both. He didn’t think she completely understood because she was used to a different way of life. It was best for them both if they avoided one another.

The ache in his hand was matched by the pain in his heart.

Chaos nudged his arm and whickered softly as if to console him. Absently, Apollo ran his hand over the horse’s shiny black coat.

It wasn’t what he wanted, but what had to be, to save Zeleia from the fate so many maidens befell at his attention. And, he admitted with a twinge of guilt, to save himself from a year of madness and nine more years of mortality. Ten years was nothing to a god, but as a mortal, it might be more than he could bear unless—

A whistling Xiphenos entered the stable. He stopped when he saw Apollo. They usually made a final inspection of the stable before returning to the men’s quarters for the night.

Xiphenos held up the lamp he carried. “There you are. What are you doing out here in the dark?”

“Seeing to Chaos,” he replied. Not exactly a lie, he thought as he quickly dragged his hand out of the water and bent to examine the horse’s foreleg.

Xiphenos caught sight of his swollen hand and set down the lamp. “What happened? Who slammed his face into your fist?”

Apollo shook his head, grateful for the shadows. “No one. I did something stupid and took out my frustration on a post.”

“I’ll get your medicines.” Ignoring Apollo’s protests, Xiphenos retrieved the bag of herbs, salves, and bandages Apollo kept ready for emergencies. As Xiphenos tugged Apollo’s hand where he could work on it, he said, “You’re a great healer but a lousy patient. You know if this had happened to me, you’d insist on treating the injury.”

Apollo acquiesced and watched as Xiphenos selected the correct salve, spreading it over his enlarged knuckles. Golden ichor still flowed through his veins. The punch to the post hadn’t broken the skin, or Xiphenos would have known instantly he wasn’t what he claimed to be. Even though he was mostly mortal, he healed faster than mortals and would be completely well in a few days. Already the throbbing was minimal and would be gone in a short time. He couldn’t tell Xiphenos, of course, so he let his friend attend him.

“Have you heard anything about any special plans of the king?” Apollo asked as Xiphenos finished spreading the salve.

“Plans?” Xiphenos picked out a strip of cloth from the bag. “What kind of plans?”

“I’m not sure. I heard a rumor that Danaus has plans for a member of his house, but I don’t know what. I thought you might have heard.”

Xiphenos carefully wrapped the cloth around Apollo’s hand and tore the end down the middle to tie it off. “You think Lady Zeleia?”

Apollo nodded. “Not much was said, but it didn’t sound good.”

“The king’s niece hasn’t been here long. What kind of plans could he have for her?” Then Xiphenos snapped his fingers and grinned. “Since the princess is betrothed to Prince Phaedrus, maybe the king intends to wed Lady Zeleia off to one of the other suitors, to build an alliance between Iotia and a stronger kingdom.”

Apollo’s mouth went dry. Zeleia wed to a king, another man, any man. At the well, she’d spoken of leaving and soon. She couldn’t know of any plans the king had for her, such as marriage. But could marriage be considered “evil intentions” as Thoe had said? Perhaps, if her uncle forced it upon her. It didn’t make sense. Marriages were arranged every day. Why would an arranged marriage for Zeleia bring down the wrath of a Hydriad?

“But that would be good, wouldn’t it?” Xiphenos called as he began checking the rest of the horses in the stalls. “I mean, the daughter of simple hunters suddenly finds out she’s the niece of a king. Then she becomes the wife of another king.”

Apollo knelt and examined Chaos’ leg. The horse chuffed but held still. There didn’t seem to be any further damage from his wild run through the courtyard.

Xiphenos stepped around the stall, wearing a crooked grin, his eyes dancing in the lamplight. “Don’t you think that’s good?”

Apollo scowled and Xiphenos’ grin widened.

“Only,” Apollo said slowly, “if Lady Zeleia wants the marriage.”

“What about you?”

Apollo stood. “I don’t think a king would want to wed me,” he said dryly.

Xiphenos laughed and picked up the lamp. “What do you think about Lady Zeleia’s marriage to a king?”

Apollo sighed as they started out of the stable. “I think it’s none of my business. Or yours.”

“Hmmm, I thought so.” Xiphenos fastened the door closed behind them.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Apollo snapped as they crossed the courtyard.

Xiphenos held up his hand. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

Apollo could feel his friend laughing silently behind him as they entered the palace.

“I’m a slave. She’s a princess.” He wouldn’t always be a slave, but Zeleia would always be a princess whom he could never offer what she really needed. He was a god who suffered memory lapses and committed atrocious acts. Even if he could accept a year of madness and nine more years of mortality, how could he be sure he wouldn’t turn on her during one of his dark moments?

The declaration sobered Xiphenos. “True. You could be put to death for dallying with a princess.”

“Then that’s the end of it.” Although his growing attraction to Zeleia would never end, he feared.

“I don’t think you’ll always be a slave,” Xiphenos said as they approached the inner courtyard.

The halls were otherwise empty. Apollo would have asked him what he meant, but he heard soft steps approaching and instinctively knew to whom they belonged. He threw an arm across Xiphenos’ chest to stop him.

“What—?” Xiphenos began.

Apollo shook his head. As the steps grew nearer, he shoved Xiphenos into an alcove then stepped in behind him.

“What are you—?”

Quiet!” Apollo whispered.

Lady Zeleia came into view at the same moment Apollo heard voices floating from the hall to his right. To his surprise, Zeleia ducked into an alcove, as well. He had only wanted to stay out of sight until she had gone on her way, unwilling to see her again so soon after his rejection of her at the well.

He didn’t know why Zeleia hid from her cousin and the prince, but he laid a finger to his lips to warn Xiphenos not to make a sound.

* * * * *

As the princess and prince drew closer to Zeleia’s hiding place, she could distinguish Phaedrus’ words first. “—doesn’t sleep, how can he dream the way the sacrifice is to be made?”

There was a moment of silence, and Zeleia imagined Canace delicately shrugging her pale shoulders. “Father sleeps, especially since he’s been drinking my cousin’s brew each night.”

“Yes, he is doing better, it seems,” Phaedrus agreed. “But he says he really doesn’t rest and he doesn’t dream.”

Zeleia held her breath as the pair walked into view, stopping in front of the alcove.

“Something has to be done soon,” Phaedrus continued. “When the sacrifice has been made, then our marriage can take place.”

“Only when Father is well again,” Canace reminded him.

“And if the sacrifice doesn’t cure him? He dreamt that a sacrifice would make him well, but even though he is sleeping more, what if he never dreams how the sacrifice is to be performed? You know how fickle the gods can be.”

“Doubting them only makes them more so.” Canace laughed. “Ah, Phaedrus, you worry too much.”

“Even if Danaus does recover, he may not be as strong as he once was,” Phaedrus persisted.

There was another silent pause, and this time Canace did shrug as delicately as Zeleia had imagined. One perfectly curved eyebrow arched quizzically.

Phaedrus chewed his bottom lip and made the plunge. “Our marriage should take place as soon as possible, to secure the position of Iotia.”

Canace’s smile was anything but pleasant. “You mean to secure your position.”

Phaedrus’ expression froze.

“Of course, I understand,” Canace continued. “You’re the middle son of a king with many sons and have to think of your future. You’re fortunate I chose you, and when I decide to wed, you will be my husband. But the house of Danaus doesn’t have to be ruled by a male, and I’m quite capable of taking my father’s place until then.”

“Others may not see it as such.” The perfect curls on Phaedrus’ forehead were damp with sweat. “When the announcement went out that the princess of Iotia was ready to choose a husband, every available princeling, widowed king, and wealthy merchant came to bid for your hand.”

Zeleia detected the desperation in his voice. Surely, Canace could hear it, too.

“Why, Phaedrus, you sound jealous,” Canace cooed.

The prince shook his head. “Even then your father’s health was failing. They saw it and knew it.”

“And left,” Canace pouted.

“And left the coffers of Iotia rich beyond even your wildest dreams, Canace, dear.”

An avaricious smile replaced the pout on Canace’s lips, and her eyes lit up. “Why, yes, they did, didn’t they!”

“But my point is,” Phaedrus pressed, “that any one of them saw the treasures you acquired and might think Iotia an easy target, ruled by a dying king and his inexperienced daughter. It wouldn’t be difficult to raise an army against Iotia. If we were wed and doubled or tripled the number of soldiers, it would be a show of strength—proof to all of Hellas that Iotia is not to be trifled with.”

Canace dismissed his dire warnings with a wave of her hand. “You know Father made them swear oaths of loyalty before their suits were accepted. They vowed never to instigate nor join an attack against this kingdom.”

“There are others, Canace. Not every kingdom in Hellas was represented, and there are others beyond Hellas as well.”

Canace straightened and looked at Phaedrus, her eyes narrowed. “Have you heard something?”

“No…” Phaedrus spoke the word slowly and hesitated just long enough to make Canace suspicious. She stared at him, studying his expression as her eyes darted over him.

Zeleia decided he had probably heard no rumors. He didn’t look unduly worried now that he had Canace’s attention. But if he made Canace think he might have, she would be more agreeable to setting a definite date for their marriage.

“I’ll discuss it with Father tomorrow,” She said at length. “Now, I’m ready to retire for the evening. Good night, Phaedrus.”

As Phaedrus took her hand and brought it up to his lips, a handful of handmaidens appeared from the shadows, Bia amongst them. Unaware of their presence until that moment, Zeleia started, her heart hammering in her chest. With the royal couple’s attention elsewhere, they didn’t notice her slight movement or deep intake of breath.

Bia glanced at her and smiled briefly as the group of servants surrounded Canace and escorted her to the stairs leading to the women’s quarters. Phaedrus stood a moment, wearing a thoughtful expression. When the princess and her retinue were out of sight, he turned around and walked back in the direction from which they’d come.

Zeleia waited, giving her heart a chance to slow to its normal rhythm and to make certain neither Phaedrus nor Canace would return. She mulled over the information she’d overheard. Did her uncle truly think the sacrifice of an innocent creature would cure him? The gods worked miracles when it suited their needs, but how one lived and died rested with the Fates. The three Ladies could not be persuaded from the destiny chosen for anyone, mortal or divine.

At least, she had been able to help her uncle to rest. In time, he would dream again. If his dreams returned, he should feel better. She could only hope his dream of the sacrifice happened after she departed for Paos. While she respected the gods and knew they deserved their due, she had never been able to watch the ritual slaughter of any animal.

Satisfied the way was clear, Zeleia stepped from behind the tall urn and headed down the hallway. Royal intrigue was a heady game, she supposed, but not one she wanted to play. After a week at the palace, she longed for her much simpler life in Paos. Right now, Metra would be sewing by lamplight, and Thoas would be making the last preparations for market day in the agora. Zeleia missed the quiet evening time, when they shared what had happened during the day. Soon, they would extinguish the lamps and go to bed.

Resolved to tell her cousin she wanted to return home in a few days, Zeleia approached the door to her uncle’s chamber. She had met her blood kin and discovered she didn’t belong here. Canace looked down on her, and her uncle had been more concerned with her necklace than finally meeting the niece he’d only recently found out about. Each night, after he’d drunk her tea, he closed his eyes and dismissed her, unwilling to spend any time in conversation with her.

Frowning, she tapped on the door and waited for the aged Echion to let her in. If the tea helped her uncle to rest and dream, perhaps he would grant her a boon before she returned home. If so, she would ask for Apollo’s freedom. If he was free, he could do whatever he wanted. She could only hope he would want to come to her.
 
 


 

Chapter VI

As soon as Zeleia emerged from the alcove and disappeared down the hall, Apollo and Xiphenos stepped from their hiding place.

“What was that all about?” Xiphenos asked.

“I’m not sure,” Apollo said with a scowl. “But it doesn’t sound good.”

“Could it have anything to do with the rumor you heard?” Xiphenos asked as they made their way up the stairs to the men’s quarters.

Apollo shrugged. “The rumor concerned Lady Zeleia. I heard nothing about a sacrifice.”

“I haven’t heard anything about a special sacrifice the king is planning either,” Xiphenos added. “Everyone in the palace is involved in preparing for sacrifices.”

They entered the sleeping quarters quietly, filled with snores and sleepy mumbles. Everyone else had bedded down for the night.

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Apollo whispered and Xiphenos nodded as they made their way to their mats on the floor.

Sometime later, Apollo awoke with a chill and drew the blanket closer. Rolling over on his side, he found himself eye-to-eye with a woman who lay facing him.

In the dimness of the night and foggy with sleep, he had the impression of intense dark eyes and a mass of long dark hair. For a moment he thought Arete had dared sneak into the men’s quarters. Then the woman giggled and he recognized his distant cousin.

“What do you want?” he sighed.

Pheme, goddess of rumor and gossip and the infamy caused by rampant hearsay, was the youngest child of the dark goddess Styx. She was Eris’ sister, yet the difference between them was the difference between night and day. Pheme was young and full of mirth, reveling in the spread of scandalous truths and outright lies, not quite realizing how they could hurt. Their duties at cross-purposes, Apollo and Pheme rarely socialized.

Pheme giggled again. “I heard you take my name in vain. What the Hydriad told you is not a rumor.”

“Rumors can be truth or lies.”

“But you led your friend to believe what you heard was doubtful,” she insisted.

Apollo closed his eyes. The immortals relished catching him in twisting the truth. Just because he was the god of truth didn’t mean he couldn’t lie. He usually preferred not to. Some lies caused him physical pain, but bending the truth merely caused a twinge.

“I didn’t lie to Xiphenos.”

“No, not completely, but you omitted a few things.”

Apollo’s eyes flew open, and he flopped over on his back. “I’m bound by the banishment not to tell anyone who I really am while I’m here—”

“Another lie of omission! Poor Apollo, caught between Scylla and Charybdis,” Pheme sympathized with the dilemma, yet another giggle belied true commiseration.

“I couldn’t tell him I’d been talking to a Hydriad,” Apollo finished. “That would give it away.”

“Or he’d think you mad,” Pheme offered cheerfully.

“That, too. Either way, truth or no, until I have proof, what Thoe told me is a rumor.”

“Most definitely the truth. King Danaus has something nasty planned.”

“For Lady Zeleia?” Apollo held his breath, hoping Pheme would tell all.

“Well, you know how rumors are, even when they’re true. You only get part of the story.” Pheme sat upright and looked down at Apollo. “For you, cousin, I’ll tell you as much as I know. The king and his spawn are being very secretive. They do have plans for your Lady Zeleia. What, I’m not sure.” Pheme shrugged and the wings at her ankles fluttered. “I must be off. Rumors abound, you know.”

“Wait!” Apollo caught her arm before she could aetherize. “Do you know where Athena is? I have to talk to her.”

Pheme shook her head. “Sorry, I haven’t seen Athena in ages.”

“Can you find her and tell her I need to see her?”

“I’ll try!” Pheme leaned over and kissed his cheek, vanishing into aether.

If the goddess of rumor didn’t know what was going on, no one did. Apollo drew the blanket closer to ward off the night chill and again tried to sleep.

* * * * *

Eris stepped out of a tapestry that hung on the wall as Prince Phaedrus passed by. She called to him softly and even though he couldn’t hear her voice, he halted and looked around uncomfortably. Shaking his head, he started to continue on his way, but Eris called to him again more sharply.

Phaedrus stopped and turned, his eyes wide and puzzled. Eris beckoned to him to follow her and he did so although he didn’t know where he was going or why. She led him into an alcove near King Danaus’ door.

Soon, the mortal woman Zeleia came into view. Eris leaned close to Phaedrus’ ear and whispered, “She is beautiful, don’t you think? More desirable than any woman you have ever seen, including your betrothed. You desire her above all others…but another stands in your way. She has become infatuated with the slave Apollo and something must be done!”

Eris felt his interest pique, and she repeated the words and more as Zeleia knocked at her uncle’s door. When a servant let her in, Eris passed her hand over Phaedrus’ forehead. “You must get rid of the slave Apollo or you will never have Lady Zeleia!”

Phaedrus’ breathing became labored and his eyes dilated, as he stepped out into the hall and stared at the king’s door. He wouldn’t understand his sudden desire for Zeleia, but he would do what was needed when the time came.

* * * * *

That morning, the same as every morning, Zeleia was awakened by lyre music. She couldn’t be dreaming it every morning, could she? Yet, why didn’t anyone else hear it?

The thoughts troubled her as well as Bia finding her perched on the window sill as if preparing to jump. She found that as long as she kept busy, by performing her morning ablutions, dressing, and combing her hair, the music didn’t completely hold her in its thrall.

Just as Zeleia finished with her hair this morn, the music stopped, leaving an emptiness inside her she didn’t understand. She was about to leave her chamber, when shrieks sounded from outside. She rushed to the window to find handmaidens clustered in a knot a short distance from the well, while several soldiers, Toxeus included, peered into its depth. Just yesterday, Bia had been quick to remind her that no one ventured near the well anymore and then refused to leave the safety of the palace. Suddenly the courtyard teemed with people. What had happened now?

Zeleia hastened across the room and pulled the heavy door open enough to squeeze through. Her foot bumped something as she stepped into the hall, and she looked down to find a small package, wrapped in cloth and tied with coarse string. Whatever was happening at the well could go on without her for the moment.

She carried the package inside and laid it on the bed. She opened it to find several smaller packets wrapped in cloth and string. When she finished opening them all, she stepped back and viewed the piles of dried herbs, lying side by side.

Although Apollo had never actually agreed to replenish her supply, the herbs could be from no one else. Zeleia had mentioned her need to Bia, but not which herbs, and Bia had never indicated more than a rudimentary knowledge of herbs. Zeleia had told no one else except Apollo.

Zeleia smiled as she rewrapped the packets and stored them in her pouch. He had brought the exact herbs she needed…and the smile dropped from her lips.

She remembered their meeting at the well, recalled their conversation word for word. She’d blurted out she needed herbs, but she never told him which ones, and Apollo never asked. How could he have known which herbs she needed?

He could have guessed. He was a healer and a good one—Gyas trusted him enough to tell her to do as Apollo instructed on the day she arrived and the wagon crashed. Still, healers concocted his or her own blends according to what each found worked best.

Zeleia had apprenticed with an aged healer near Paos until her death several years ago. Nicippe had explained that Zeleia had a natural talent for working with herbs. Nicippe could teach Zeleia what she knew, but every healer, especially one with Zeleia’s gift, had his or her own way. What worked for Nicippe wouldn’t necessarily work for Zeleia, and the reverse was true as well.

Zeleia had found Nicippe was right. She had taken the healer’s recipes and enhanced them so they worked for her. As a healer, Apollo couldn’t know exactly which herbs Zeleia had used in the infusion for her uncle. He had made a remarkable guess. Or—

“M’lady!” Bia burst through the open door, breaking Zeleia’s chain of thought.

“Bia, what has happened?” Zeleia turned away from the pouch and put the puzzle out of her mind. “I heard a commotion at the well and was on my way.”

“The well, there is water again!” Bia’s voice shook with excitement or fear. Both, Zeleia decided as she followed Bia into the hall.

At the bottom of the stairs, Prince Phaedrus emerged from the shadows suddenly. Uneasy at his abrupt appearance, Zeleia had the impression he’d been waiting for her.

Bia fell into a deep bow, head lowered, and stepped a respectable distance behind her.

“Good morn, Princess Zeleia,” he said smoothly with a slight bow.

“And to you, Prince Phaedrus,” Zeleia replied. She would have sent Bia away from the prince’s stifling presence, but she didn’t want to be left alone with him. “Please, call me Lady Zeleia. My father rejected his right to the throne, and I am uncomfortable using the title.”

“As you wish, Lady Zeleia,” he said with a bow and offered his arm. “Would you care to walk with me in the garden so that I may get to know my betrothed’s cousin better?”

Zeleia’s brow knotted in confusion as she glanced at Bia, who shrugged imperceptibly. A leisurely walk in the gardens would be unseemly this early when there was work to be done. Zeleia laid her hand lightly on his arm, suspecting he would be offended if she refused. However, she had no intention of walking anywhere with him other than to the well.

“Bia informed me that the water has returned to the well and we were on our way there. Perhaps we can inspect the gardens another time, but I would be glad if you accompanied us to the well.” She tried to put him off without being rude or committing to anything definite.

“Later in the morning?” he pressed eagerly.

Zeleia couldn’t imagine what had prompted the prince’s sudden interest in her. She’d only seen him briefly a few times since her arrival. Each time, the prince’s bored eyes seemed to look through her, as if she were beneath his notice. Now, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Or his hands. His other hand covered hers, caressing her fingers intimately.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’ll be terribly busy all day. Perhaps if I’m not too tired, after the evening meal,” Zeleia said to placate him. She intended to make up some excuse in the evening. “We’re on our way to the well, now.”

“Of course, Lady Zeleia,” Phaedrus said as they started around the inner courtyard. “I’m pleased to hear the water has returned. Water from the river is not nearly as sweet as from the well.”

“And the handmaidens won’t have to continue the tiresome task of carrying water several times a day in addition to their regular chores.”

“Oh, of course,” Phaedrus agreed in a disaffected tone. Outside, he commented, “You are very different from your cousin Canace.”

“Yes, I am, thank you,” Zeleia said with a smile. “I mean, thank you for walking with us. I’ll see you this evening perhaps.”

He bowed his head over her hand, and for a moment she thought he was going to press his lips to her fingers. Instead, he reluctantly released her. Zeleia felt his eyes on her as Bia and she crossed to the group of handmaidens. She dismissed him as her gaze swept across the men at the well. None stood taller than the rest, and she could see no burnished gold hair. Zeleia sighed. Apollo was not with them.

* * * * *

“What happened to the monster?” one of the handmaidens, Eupate, was asking the others.

“Toxeus won’t say,” Arete answered, but turned when she heard Zeleia’s and Bia’s approach. She flung out one arm, an accusing finger pointing at Zeleia. “Ask her.”

All the women turned to look at Zeleia. She stopped and Bia moved closer to her side, as if to protect her.

“What makes you think I know what happened to the well?” Zeleia asked, dismayed at the implication.

Arete’s dark eyes flashed. “I heard you last eve. No one goes near the well, but you were bent over the side, throwing something in, and mumbling strange words. I say she is a sorceress.”

The others looked at Zeleia suspiciously. Some of them were outright frightened, but most of them merely frowned.

Bia stepped in front of Zeleia, her chin jutting forward stubbornly. “And if Lady Zeleia did, what of it? The water, it has returned, and we no longer have to haul water from the river. The Lady Zeleia, she did nothing wrong.”

“Thank you, Bia,” Zeleia said with a reassuring smile and stepped around Bia. “But I didn’t cast a spell last eve at all.”

Zeleia hesitated. She couldn’t admit to being with Apollo. And she certainly couldn’t tell about playing the game to find her true love. She had to say something because she couldn’t allow Arete to estrange her from the servants when she tried so hard to fit in and be accepted.

“See?” Arete shouted. “She has no excuse. She can’t explain why she was at the well.”

Bia’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Can you explain why you were at the well?”

All eyes turned to Arete, and she took a step backward. “I-I wasn’t at the well. I was walking around the courtyard to avoid the well when I saw her standing beside the well. I hid in the bushes as close as I dared to see what she was doing. I saw her throw things into the well and recite words I couldn’t understand.”

The women glanced at one another, silently decided to believe her explanation, and looked at Zeleia again.

Zeleia had no choice but to tell them the truth…or as much of the truth as she could. The women were easily swayed at this point as the swift turn of their suspicions from Zeleia to Arete and back again just proved. She had befriended them all—except Arete—and she should have no difficulty convincing them of her innocence with a partial truth.

“I played a silly childhood game” The real embarrassment she suffered at the admission infused her cheeks with heat. “A handful of pebbles and a repeating verse and you might find out who your true love is. No sorcery involved.”

“Sounds like sorcery to me,” Arete declared with a skeptical shrug toward her companions.

“No,” another handmaiden, Simale, cried out. “I remember the game. You drop the pebbles one by one into the water and—now, how does it go? One is to find him, one is to hold him…something like that. Whichever one you say on the last pebble is the one you should do to find your future husband.

Several of the women nodded vigorously, saying they remembered playing the game when they were younger. The others looked relieved.

Zeleia let out a long breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding.

“I’ve never heard of such a game,” Arete snapped. “I still think it strange that she would be at the well when the rest of us avoided it just to play a stupid game.”

“I went for a walk and came upon the well before I knew it. My foot scraped the pile of loose pebbles at the base and I remembered the game.”

“I showed Lady Zeleia the way through the palace to the back courtyards. She must have lost her way and came back by the well,” Bia expanded the story a bit. She glanced back at Zeleia and flashed a quick smile.

The women trusted Bia, more than they trusted haughty Arete. They whispered amongst themselves, but their conference was cut short by the arrival of the soldiers and slaves, led by Toxeus.

“Is the water good?” Arete asked Toxeus.

He barely acknowledged her presence, but Zeleia suspected they might be more intimately involved than he let on. Arete’s jaw clenched, and she folded her arms across her breasts. Her eyes flashed in anger.

Intimacy between slaves was forbidden, but she imagined the king’s soldiers took their pleasure wherever they wanted with no recourse amongst the slave women.

“The water’s good,” he announced. “Hermion drank a cupful and has suffered no ill effects.”

The women chattered excitedly, relieved they would no longer have to fetch water from the river twice a day, while the men speculated why the well had gone dry in the first place and what caused it to have water again. If Zeleia had been capable of casting a spell to open the well, she would have gladly done so. It would be a relief not to have to have to make the trek to the river, but she had to admit she would miss the extra time with Apollo. They would have to slip away to be together.

Bia! There you are!” Canace’s shriek echoed throughout the courtyard and silence followed immediately.

The handmaidens and male slaves scattered to return to their chores. The soldiers dispersed in a more dignified manner, but moved just as quickly. Bia, head bowed, apologized and begged forgiveness as she raced to Canace’s side.

Zeleia frowned. Her cousin did not begin to comprehend how much she was hated as well as feared. Did power and wealth always corrupt? No, because Zeleia had heard of good and wise kings who ruled in the best interest of their people and kingdoms.

It suddenly occurred to her how much of a disservice her father Cilix might have done to the people of Iotia. She would like to think he would have been a better king than his brother Danaus. In truth, she did not know, but she didn’t see how he could have been worse than the selfish and conceited Canace.

“Shut up your whining!” Canace screamed at Bia. “Your constant apologies give me a headache.”

Bia cowered behind the princess, but a pair of quickly raised eyebrows made clear to Zeleia that Bia knew exactly how far to push without going over the line. Zeleia coughed behind her hand to cover the laughter that threatened to spill.

“What were the lazy good-for-nothings doing out here idle all morn?” Canace brushed non-existent dust from the pinned sleeve of her royal blue chiton.

“Not all morn,” Zeleia said quietly. “The water has returned to the well.”

A genuine smile curved Canace’s deep purple painted lips. “Wonderful news! Now, I’ll have enough water for my bath without waiting for those shiftless servants to bring more.”

“The handmaidens were excited because they won’t have to—” Zeleia began.

“As if they have anything better to do.” The smile dropped from Canace’s face and she scowled. “If they have time to stand around in the courtyard, they certainly have time to haul water. My father didn’t purchase them to laze the day away.”

Zeleia bit her lip then set it free before she lost her courage and changed her mind. She took a deep breath. “You might be more understanding of their situation if you did what any good mistress of her house is supposed to do and share in the labor of those who serve. I’ve spent most of my days working alongside the women although I haven’t accomplished nearly as much as they do, but haven’t seen you in attendance at all. I can only thank the gods I don’t have to be at your beck and call each waking hour or I’d never get anything else done. Your servants are not lazy, but they serve a lazy mistress who shows as little respect for them as they, rightfully, have for her!”

“How dare you, you—you Arcadian!” Canace spluttered, her face almost as purple as the coloring on her lips.

“You forget, cousin,” Zeleia reminded her sweetly. “By blood, I am Iotian.”

Canace’s hands fisted at her sides. “By your lack of sophistication, you are no better than the backwoods Arcadian you were brought up to be.”

“If you are the standard by which all princesses are measured, I’d rather claim Arcadian blood,” Zeleia said proudly. “But I think you are an aberration, at best, and a disgrace, at worst. And I think I’ve said enough. I’m sure my words have been shed like leaves in the autumn. I wish to return to Paos as soon as possible. I’ve done what I came here to do. I’ve met my blood-kin and found them lacking in grace and compassion. I want to go home to my true family. I’ll leave in the morning. There is no need to accompany me, cousin.”

Canace’s eyes narrowed and her lips curled into a sneer. “You will leave when my father decrees and not a moment before. If you try to leave before he is done with you, he’ll have the soldiers drag you back. Here, you are under the rule of King Danaus, and you are under my rule when the king is too ill to tend to his duties. Be warned, Lady Zeleia. If you do anything to upset my father’s plans, you will discover exactly what the mistress of this house is capable of when her wishes are not carried out. I swear, cousin, you will not like it at all.”

Canace turned on her heel and strode into the palace before Zeleia had a chance to respond. Zeleia looked down at Bia, whom the princess had forgotten in the heat of their confrontation. Bia’s face was lit up with a huge smile. Then Zeleia heard stifled laughter and rustling in the bushes. Some of the other handmaidens had heard the exchange as well.

“I’m sorry, Bia, but I’m afraid I may have made things worse,” Zeleia said softly.

Bia stood and laid a hand on Zeleia’s arm. “It was worth it. Don’t worry, m’lady. We know how to handle the princess. Now, I must go.”

Zeleia watched as Bia hastened inside. She would have felt better if Canace heeded her words, but nothing she said or ever could say would make any difference. Zeleia had seen the glow of hatred and arrogance in her cousin’s eyes. Canace knew what she was doing and simply did not care.

Coming in late 2011 from Silver Heart Books.

77 comments

  1. Dear Lani:

    Remember me? I’m Samantha! The tiresome girl who always asked about this novel, lol … I hope you remember to send me an autographed copy to my email when you’re done, as once you promised me you would, hopefully end your novel, because I’m very anxious to read it in full. I’m sure it will be a fabulous story 🙂

    Greetings from Chile

    My mail is still [e-mail info redacted]


    • Hi, Samantha!

      Of course I remember you. I’m just as anxious to finish Immortal Conquest as you are to read it! LOL The plan is to finish it this year and release it this fall. It’s been on the backburner way too long. But other projects and Real Life just got in the way. Things have settled down now, so I can concentrate on writing and finishing up some old projects that I put off. Yes, I remember I promised you an autographed copy. *g* This one will be in POD in paperback, as well as an e-book, unlike the shorter books I’ve been releasing lately. Good to hear from you!

      Lanette


  2. Lanette:

    I too was glad to hear from you again, for so long that we had not contacted … I’m glad that you have answered my message while I must say I am very anxious to read the end of your story. Among many other novels that I have in my head, your story I have always had in my mind, I remember all the characters in your novel, but you already know my favorite is the god Apollo, jejeje… I hope to read for years that the development and final … not believe I forgot, lol … I’ll be waiting for your autographed book in my mail

    Greetings!


  3. Greetings!!!!!!


  4. I wish you all the luck in the world and can finally conclude all the stories that you had outstanding


  5. Just hope I never have trouble getting my computer open your book autographed at the POD format, which certainly had never heard … Is it as PDF? o.o??


    • Sorry! POD is Print On Demand–it’s a physical, trade paperback size book. Each copy is printed out as it’s ordered, instead of a bunch being printed up and stored in a warehouse and ordered one at a time. Soon as I get the novel finished and published, I’ll order a copy, sign it, and snail mail it (put it in the post) to you. When the time comes, I’ll e-mail you to get a postal address to send it to. (DON’T put your information here in the comments! We’ll handle it by private e-mail.)

      Yes, I remember that Apollo is your favorite. He’s mine, too. *g* I think one reason I took so long to finish it is because I want to get it just right, so I had to do a LOT of research for it before I could finish writing it. (Of course, I’ve had some Real Life stuff get in the way, too, as you know.) I’m really looking forward to getting back to work on it this summer.

      Take care!
      Lanette


  6. Lanette:

    I wanted to know was whether that format POD is readable on any computer or if you must have a special program to open it. So, my question points to that, once you send me the book autographed,I will not have problems reading it on my computer????

    Greetings!


    • Did you read my other reply? It will be a physical, paperback book. You’ll be able to hold it in your hands and read it like any other paperback. *g*

      Lanette


  7. Excuse my ignorance, now I understand. Just one more question: What does the symbol *g*? Is it a sigh? Jijiji…

    Thanks so much!


  8. Lani!

    Just one last question my dear, do you still have my email? Remember my mail? I do not know if yours is still the same as yahoo, so I left my email in the first post

    The other thing I wanted to know is what will be the official website of the sale of your book Immortal Conquest(because I buy a copy of the visa of a friend, lol, as I promised) I hope when you publish your book virtually, you send me the link my mail, put you above, gmail, the malfoy. I know it’s risky to have given it in this way, but I can assure you is clear, but I can assure you is clear 🙂

    Bye!


    • Yes, I saw your e-mail addy. And I still have it. I don’t check my Yahoo e-mail often, so you can write to me at lncurington (at) gmail (dot) com.

      I’ll be updating the information here at the blog. And I’ll be sure to remember to send you an e-mail about it. I’m hoping I’ll have it out late this year, perhaps November.

      Lanette


  9. Lani:

    Could I send your mail a few questions that I still I have with respect to Immortal Conquest? Questions of years ago … But I do not think that resists curiosity until you publish the book, lol … In your Gmail because it would be inappropriate to publish here my questions, lol …. Just send your doubts if I have your permission.

    Greetings!


  10. When will this novel published? I’ve been waiting for years!!


    • Hi, Alexandra:

      I’ve been waiting for years to finally finish it! *g* The plan is to publish it this fall, in November.

      Thanks so much!
      Lanette


  11. I also hope you post as soon as possible this novel because I’ve waited a long time!

    Peter, from Houston =)


    • Oh, wow, I had no idea so many were waiting for this book. Thanks for letting me know of your interest.

      Any more out there? 😉

      Lanette


  12. I also want to leave this book published as soon as possible, along with several other of your novels, but this is what fascinates me most!!

    I would like to know what character you basaste to create to Phaedrus???

    Good bye!


    • Hi, Elizabeth:

      I created Phaedrus. He isn’t based on anyone in the Greek myths or anything.

      Thanks!
      Lanette


  13. Hi Lanette!

    Thanks for answering, but I meant if you had to create Phaedrus based on a character of literature IN GENERAL, NOT specifically of Greek mythology. I’m asking you because I think it’s a very interesting character, in my perception.

    Thanks!


  14. Thanks. Interesting. I just hope nobody kills Phaedrus in the novel, hehehehe ….

    Bye…


  15. I love Zeleia!


  16. I prefer Xiphenos 🙂

    Kisses!!


  17. Hopefully soon go on sale this book, I can not wait!


  18. Thanks, y’all! Immortal Conquest will be out this fall, probably November.

    Lanette


  19. I can`t away for november… *o*


  20. Do you really think you are done between now and November?


  21. And have you started writing Immortal Conquest right now?


    • I’ve been writing on it off and on for years. It’s about two-thirds completed now.

      Lanette


  22. I wondered if you apart from the three chapters that had already written, you had written more now, in July


  23. Good luck and I hope you can finish this great story by November! 🙂

    PD: How many chapters you’ve written now, in july?

    greetings!


    • I write scenes and chapters out of order, so I’m not sure. Just a guess, about 12.

      Lanette


  24. Do you write chapters out of order? And did that work? Do not you confused? LOL

    So write the final scenes, after the half and the last of the beginning? I do not understand how you do it that way, but I imagine it should be fun and original


    • In my longer books, scenes come to me out of order. I write them while they’re fresh in my mind. For example, I already have the Epilogue written because I knew how the book was going to end and what I wanted to happen in the Epilogue. When I finish the rest of the book, I’ll go over the Epilogue and make changes as necessary, in case something happened earlier in the book, that I didn’t know was going to happen at the time I wrote the Epilogue, that I need to reference.

      Sometimes it is a little confusing…but that’s the way I write. 🙂

      Lanette


  25. Historically speaking, what time of ancient Greece are acclimated about your stories? C. VIII? C.VII?. BC is obviously…

    It may seem a silly and ridiculous question, but I’m passionate about these issues as well as Greek mythology in general ^_^


    • Different stories are in different timeframes. Immortal Conquest is set one generation before the time of Heracles (Hercules).

      Lanette


  26. I am also a professor of ancient history.

    Good luck for you!


    • Thanks!

      I have no formal education in ancient history or mythology, just a deep interest in both. I have some stories to tell, so I did a lot of reading and research to get the “flavor” of the times. They won’t be 100% accurate…but then I’m not writing a thesis on ancient history or Greek mythology. I’m just telling some stories and hope others find them entertaining, too. 🙂

      Lanette


  27. I imagine it, literature is art and not have to adhere strictly to history or mythology, it is a personal creation, but I wanted to know about what time you’d think the least the atmosphere. only that ^_^

    Personally, I can tell you is sometimes difficult to write stories based on one hundred percent to the official story, because it requires a very diligent knowledge, and an even more specific vocabulary. Besides, it can sometimes restrict the creativity of the writer


  28. Do you represent the god Apollo as a kind of tragic hero in your story?


    • A tragic romance hero, yes, with a happily-ever-after. 🙂

      Lanette


  29. I send greetings! I hope you’re well 🙂

    Greetings!

    Samantha


  30. What a nice way you have to represent god Apollo, considering considering he had nothing romantic or heroic. Still, we like to Apollo

    Olympian god Apollo is your favorite?


  31. Mythologically speaking, do you imagine the god Apollo with the personality that you describe in your story?.

    What character you can imagine the god Apollo? (It is also my favorite god of the Olympian pantheon! n.n)


    • No, I think Apollo (and all the gods and goddesses I use in my Immortal stories) are different in the original myths from how I create them in my stories. I generally try to make them more sympathetic, more likeable, or at least more “human”, so we can identify with them easier. 🙂

      Sorry, I don’t understand your second question.

      Lanette


  32. My question points to how you think is the personality of Apollo, how do you imagine the personality of Apollo? I mean, as you see from a mythological point of view, as someone good, bad, nice, nasty… that is.


    • Oh, I think he’s probably one of the nicer, more compassionate immortals. 🙂

      Lanette


  33. Why do you think that Apollo is kind and compassionate to other gods? Why is the god of light? I will ask because it’s funny that you think the same way I do.

    It is strange that both think the same way and have the same perception of him.


    • In the original myths, he doesn’t come across as harsh and cruel as most of the other gods and goddesses.

      Lanette


  34. I also think the same as you, but I do not forget when Apollo flayed Marsyas alive or raped and murdered mercilessly Creusa the mother of Asclepius, Coronis. I think Apollo was something changing and bipolar, right?

    To be the god of reason and balance, I think it was something unbalanced and irrational sometimes … but I guess that’s what makes it so special and interesting Apollo 🙂


  35. How many chapters have already written, not counting those published here? 10? 20? 30? 40? At least a numerical approach, I’m dying to know 😀


    • Since it’s not finished, I don’t know exactly how many chapters it will be, but a guess is about 20, not including Prologue and Epilogue. I have about 12 chapters, the Prologue and Epilogue, and some other scenes and bits and pieces already written.

      Even accounting for the few bad things attributed to Apollo, he’s still nicer than most of the others. LOL

      Lanette


  36. Lani: Could not you send me to my mail an excerpt from a chapter you’ve done? Although short, something like a “sneak peek” … Or is it too much to ask? Am I being too shameless? I hope not to bother for my order but I am very fan of your work.


    • Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoy my stories. I’ll probably add a few more chapters to the excerpt in a few months, after it’s been through edits.

      Lanette


  37. Thank you very much, I’m glad you have not upset about that favor. I hope you understand that only an excerpt of this story, Immortal Conquest 😀


  38. That’s it! To add a few chapters in this extract. I’m a fan of his work and this particular story because I love the god Apollo and other characters in this novel! ;D

    Greetings!!

    Samantha


  39. And may be one / several chapters that appear much my dear god Apollo! 😀

    Greetings!


  40. When do you think that publishing those chapters that you said you add to this fragment?


  41. Thank you 🙂


  42. Wooooooooow…. Thank you very much, now I have a lot to read while I hope you post the entire book =D

    Many, thank you very much!!!!!!!!

    Greetings!!!!!


  43. Do not forget to let me know when you publish the entire book, because I want to be the first to buy 🙂

    Greetings


  44. Thank you very much for taking the time to do this, just because two fond of your novels we ask as a favor

    Greetings from Barcelona, Spain


  45. When you finish Immortal Conquest , Do you could send me an email to tell me and let me know? Or the blog will announce it to you? Sorry for my ignorance T_T

    Greetings!!!


  46. When you finish Immortal Conquest, Do you could send me an email to tell me and let me know? Or the blog will announce it to you? Sorry for my ignorance T_T

    Greetings!!!


    • I’m so sorry to you and everyone about the delay. I was hoping to have this one done by now. This plot is giving me fits, and I sort of wrote myself into a corner. The muse isn’t helping much these days. I’ll try to finish it up as soon as I can.

      Thanks for your patience!

      Lanette


  47. I love it Apollo! =D


  48. Dear Lanette:

    Hopefully soon you finish this beautiful and interesting history, I have a great desire to read it!!

    Greetings from Chile 🙂



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