The air is rank with the stench of decay as I stalk through the halls hunting the last Gorgon. Fate has not been kind to Medusa’s progeny, has not tolerated their presence or proclivities. For as we seek to change, to evolve, to transmute the world around us, the Gorgons seek to keep things as they were—in silent stasis. In stone.
That they don’t deserve the treatment they’ve received is none of my concern. Their time is passing like a whisper; like the age of harsh breath and cold steel, my mother’s age, has given way to a time of gunpowder and steam. The revolver that I hold in my trembling hand, a woman’s hand no less, affirms this. Yet I need the last gasp of the old world to aid me in the new.
I crouch and listen for footfalls, for breath, for anything that might give me the position of the creature. Legends say that the old ones had bestial bodies, but over the decades they’ve grown more human, though they still retain the ability to turn one to stone with but their gaze.
I angle the mirrored discs attached to the frame of my glasses. They’re not a perfect solution, but they do prevent me from having to look straight at the Gorgon. Which is what ultimately proved the downfall of the race. Once the trick to defeating them was out, any fool with a mirror could follow in the footsteps of Perseus. And so, many unique and wondrous creatures were taken from this world, leaving us with only a few. Perhaps one. Whose location I bought from a drunk in a bar.
I walk a long corridor, sighting a small room at its back. Crumbling pillars surround me. I wonder how stable the structure is, whether the ceiling will collapse before I find what I seek.
The slightest sound, like a foot upon sand, crunches behind me. I whirl toward it.
I catch a glimpse of soft, down wings fluttering, as silent as an owl’s, and a slender body, before a scaled, clawed hand knocks the glasses from my face.
I squeeze my eyes shut and throw myself backward, holding the revolver in the air, my whole body tense. I scrabble for concealment, thrumming with panic. I listen, but all I hear is the crumbling of old stone.
“I only want to talk,” I say through the dryness of my mouth. “I came to talk.”
Silence. Then a hiss, and footsteps charging at me. Fast.
My eyes closed, my heart a maddened beast, I raise the revolver and fire into the thing in front of me until the cylinder spins onto empty chambers. I open my eyes slowly, warily, using the polished silver handle of the gun to look around. The Gorgon lies at my feet, twitching. Her wings are bloody; soft down floats through the air.
As she dies, I search for my mirrored glasses and find them nearby, then secure them to my face.
I see her face, scaled but not monstrous, and find myself tracing its shape along one cheek. Then I draw my sword and begin half-hacking, half-sawing through the creature’s neck.
Blood and feathers spatter my clothes along with a smell that is both earthy and musky. Blood pumps slowly from her severed neck, pooling along the dusty, mossy ground inside her lair.
After I tuck her head into the oiled leather bag I brought with me, I take in my surroundings. The lair looks old and sad and gray. It smells of mold and that same musk scent.
Something moves at the end of the corridor, stirring in the small room I had seen there. I raise the gun and stop when I see the small figure, the same soft wings but smaller; coiled serpent hair tight about the head. Little more than a girl. The creature’s offspring. What she was protecting.
I suppress a shudder, as sadness and weariness settle hard into my bones. Then I leave as quickly as I came, my prize, the head of the Gorgon, slapping against my leg.
♦ ♦ ♦
My mount doesn’t spook at the additional weight or the nature of my trophy. It is, after all, a cousin, of sorts. The Pegasari descend from Medusa’s child, after all. My Ariadne doesn’t do anything but ruffle her mane the way she always does. She’s a fine mount, a gift I couldn’t refuse from a man I would.
She gives a trot then a little jump, and her great wings unfurl and flap and we soar into the air. Back. Back to where I must make my stand.
Clytos is of the Blood Olympos, tracing his family lineage back to Poseidon, less than five generations back. A captain of the Hellenic Fleet, he is at the moment leading a successful campaign against the barbarians of the Ebony Coast.
And he wants me.
Were he a simple soldier, I could have rebuffed him, but one of the Olympos.... They have godsblood in their veins. They are used to getting what they want.
When last we met, Clytos asked me what gift would be suitable for a woman of my ‘exquisite beauty’. His words. So I named it. I named a horse of the Pegasari, thinking it beyond him, a man of the sea. But Ariadne is real and strong beneath me.
A few hours later, with me marveling at her endurance, Ariadne puts me down in the city. The streets of New Knossos are filled with people from all corners of the Empire. Skin as dark as volcanic rock and as light and freckled as a doe’s belly. Soldiers, slaves, traders, musicians, they all swarm through the labyrinthine streets, the city’s blood pumped through by its powerful urban heart.
I wind my way through them, cradling the oilskin bag in my arms. A priestess of Aphrodite sells perfumes and oils and love potions. Across the street, a man sells goats for sacrifice. I do little more than glance at them as I pass by. And hold my nose.
Shuddering and coughing, a steam conveyance crosses the street in front of me, belching smoke from the twin stacks mounted on its back. The driver, a tall dark-skinned Asiatic man, pushes levers and pulls on switches, keeping it moving.
At last I reach Hieronymus’s workshop, and the ticking of gears greets my ears as I enter the room. Hieronymus is said to be blessed by Hephaestus, and it doesn’t seem to be boast alone. His workshop is filled with wondrous creations of brass and gears, of steam and steel. He is faced away from me, bent over some new project of his, his red-brown hair hanging about his face. He is thin and lithe, and even there, working, his movements are fluid and precise.
I toss the mirrored glasses upon the counter. “You know you’re likely to go blind without more light in here,” I say.
“There are, perhaps, other ways I’d go blind first,” he says, his voice full of humor. He tosses something to me over his back. I catch it out of reflex, a small silver orb. It ticks in my hand, tick-tock, tick-tock. I’m about to ask him what it is, when the ticking stops and the orb unfurls, revealing petals that spiral open to form a metallic flower that gleams and grows until it stands, beautiful and bright, in my hand.
“Did the glasses work?” Hieronymus turns at last to look at me, dark goggles covering his eyes. His face is smeared with grease where he’s rubbed it.
“Until they were knocked off,” I say. “Here. You can have them back.”
He shakes his head. “No, keep them.” He stands up and comes up to me, curling my fingers around the glasses. His hands are warm, mine cold. The difference seems to create a charge. He holds my hand for just a moment too long, then lets go.
I flush. “What am I going to do with these?” I say. “My task is done.” I heft the bag for emphasis.
“She attacked me. I had no choice.” I look away. “She had a child. She was protecting it.”
He pulls the goggles from his head, ruffling his hair. I hold the bag forward. He opens it hesitantly, almost tenderly. He peers in, then pulls back, covering his nose from the smell.
“I know you’ve smelled worse than that,” I say.
“Machine smells are one thing. Animal smells....”
“She wasn’t an animal.” My voice stills him. He nods.
“Do you really think this will work?” he says.
No one other than Hieronymus knows what I intend to do. I trust no one else to know. His question stirs up all my doubts, my fears, my desperation, but I push them back down, out of my mind’s sight. “It’s all I have.”
“Well, that and a flying horse.” He grins, and I want to grin with him. “How did she ride?”
“Like a dream,” I say. And then I do smile. We stand like that, both beaming at each other, and suddenly the moment passes into awkwardness.
“The mask?” I say.
“Already completed. It should be delivered today.”
I thank him, then turn to go.
“Don’t forget your glasses,” he says.
I open my mouth to protest.
His fingers find my hand, squeeze it. “I made them for you,” he says. “They’re fitted to your face.” I recall him doing so, his face very close to mine, his breath warm on my skin, his fingers light upon my face, the smell of oil. “I can’t reuse them. Not without ruining them.”
I sigh and pick them up. They have no purpose, but I take them anyway.
“Good luck, Naima,” he says.
♦ ♦ ♦
On my way back to my tenement, I hear people talking of the fleet returning. Of the ships being sighted by fishing vessels off the coast. My time is running short. I quicken my pace.
I take Ariadne on one last task. One that has been weighing on me since I left the Gorgon’s home. It is a foolish thing, perhaps, something I might regret, but it is a tangle in a weave I wanted to be smooth. Then, once home, I bathe, pouring heated water into the great brass basin. It scalds me as I lower myself into it, but it’s the way I prefer it. The water covers me. Not the sea, not Poseidon’s domain, but drawn from springs deep in the earth. I let it soak me, hoping that it will wash me clean of the filth. Clean of the blood. But that, I know, is harder to shed.
When I am done bathing, I dress in a long, sheer gown, so different from my shirt and trousers. But it is what he will expect, and I do not want to alert him from the start.
He is no fool, that is certain. He was already a wise ship captain when I was just a girl. I recall him coming to the house when I was a small thing. I was surprised that someone of such an entourage and with such carriage knew my mother. He bent down, as if assessing me, and I remember being bothered by the look he gave me.
Then he spoke to my mother. Despite my discomfort at his expression, it was the expression on her face, after he left, that disturbed me even more. For years afterward he would send me gifts from his travels on the sea. Every few years, between campaigns, he would stop by to see us and each time, that same assessing look. As if I were a horse that he were grooming for a race.
No, he had too much experience to be taken in easily. And so I would need to be smart. As smart as Hieronymus.
Thoughts of Hieronymus make me want to sink back into the bath, let the water swirl around me as I close my eyes and slide my hand down the slickness of my belly and thighs. But no, I can’t bear the distraction. And that dream is far off. Another world. Another time.
Clytos will come soon, dressed in his finery, his head high, shoulders back, a proud member of a proud race. I have often wondered what it must be like to live as one of the Blood Olympos, with the blood of gods in your veins. What it must be to have the world at your feet, to want for nothing, to get whatever your heart desires. To know little fear. For it is a death sentence to kill one of the Blood Olympos. A crime to draw the blood of the gods.
I light candles, prepare the jug of wine. Bowls of grapes, figs and olives rest on the table, awaiting my lord’s pleasure.
He comes. Soon.
♦ ♦ ♦
I lift the Gorgon’s head and remember my mother as she lay dying in her bed. The apothecaries and sages had all come, had all left saying there was nothing they could do.
My mother would die.
I pleaded with her. “Why don’t you ask the aid of Clytos? Even if he can’t cure you, he can certainly make your hours more bearable.”
She shook her head. “You don’t know what you ask of me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There will be a price.” She reached out with trembling, clammy hands to grip my face. “That price is you.”
“He has desired you from the start. From when he saw you as a child. But he can not have you.”
I pressed her hands down. Stroked her lank hair. “I will refuse him. I do not want him.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “You would not be able to refuse. He is of the Blood Olympos. But he is something much worse....”
Tears welled in her eyes, spilled down onto her wan cheeks. I clutched for her hand.
“He is your father.”
A chill threaded through my chest, seizing my breath. “What?”
“He came to me long ago. When I was newly upon these shores, and had little to my name. He was taken with my beauty, or so he said. So different. And he helped me, gifts, favors. And he was already powerful then. At first I was overcome by his attentions. Then... then I feared his disfavor. He has a cruel streak, as they all do, those who hold the world in their grip. But by then I was pregnant with you and so... and so I endured until he grew bored with me.”
I gripped the bed upon which she lay, as if to reassure myself of my surroundings. “But if he is my father....”
“He is Olympos. That matters little to him. You are something new. Something different. Something that has attracted his fancy. He has waited a long time, but he will only wait so long. And you are old enough.”
My mouth was dry. I thought I tasted the bitterness of the herbs my mother breathed for her condition.
She gripped my arm with her bony hand. “Do not let him have you,” she said. “Promise me.”
“I promise,” I said.
Later that night, while my mother slept in fitful sleep, I sent a message to Clytos. I told him that I needed his help. And offered to meet him.
Unfortunately, he was away at sea, but he sent a message back, swiftly accomplished, as one with access to Hermes’s kin can. I asked him to help my mother, to do what he could to ease her suffering. He asked, in return, if he could call on me. With this my only hope, I acquiesced.
My mother’s pain vanished, but three weeks later, she died. Clytos’s physicians did what they could, but there was no stopping her sickness.
After her death, he arranged for her funeral rites. He came to the funeral procession, embraced me and gave his apologies. “I’m sorry there wasn’t more that I could do,” he said. “But I eased her suffering and her spirit will be cared for in the Underworld. I’ve seen to that.”
“Thank you,” was all I could manage.
He placed his hands on my shoulders and locked eyes with me. His irises were the blue of the ocean. “I will give you one year to grieve,” he said. “Then I will come for you.”
I nodded. I had sought this, after all.
“Until then,” he said.
His touch on my face as he said those words lingered long after he had walked away.
I can feel it still.
♦ ♦ ♦
I prepared myself for what would happen once the year was over. What else could I do? I made the bargain knowing full well what the price was. He had done what he could to help her. What choice did I have?
I helped put my mother’s affairs in order. I organized her belongings. It was then that I came across the lacquered box and the small scrap of parchment upon it. I recognized Clytos’s writing from the many gifts I had received as a child. But I had never known him to send my mother anything.
The box contained a packet of worn letters and an empty bottle. I couldn’t help myself. I untied the string that bound the vellum pages and began to read.
Love letters. Letters praising my mother, her beauty, her exoticness. Her fire. I burn with the memory of your touch. I am pierced by the arrow of your love.
Clytos was no poet, but they did show passion, evidence that he had once cared for her, or at least was caught by obsession. A tempest of emotions swirled through me at these words from the man who was my father. My mother’s lover, who would be mine as well.
The letters stopped some time before my birth, but the last was dated far later, when my mother was sick. It read, “I was gazing at the waves, from a cliff on the Asiatic Sea. And I thought of you. Here is the juice from these foreign shores in memory of the time we once shared. Drink it and lose some of these long years.”
The barest hint of reddish residue darkened the clear bottle at the bottom of the box. I removed it and tucked it into my satchel and headed into the city. There, I found the apothecary who had helped with my mother’s illness. “Can you tell me what was once in this?” I said.
“I can try,” he said. “It might take some time.”
“I still have some of that left,” I said.
On the way out I bumped into a man, his red-brown hair tumbled into his eyes, working some contraption in the shop.
“Sorry,” he said, his brown eyes startling.
“It’s okay,” I said. “What is that you’re working on?”
“Steam-powered stirring device. For potions and elixirs,” he said.
“That sounds fancy,” I said.
“Sounds like progress to me,” he said. And smiled. Like a strong light in the eyes, it took that smile some time to fade from my mind.
The apothecary called me back a week or so later and I stared at him eagerly as he held up the bottle. “Where did you say this was from again?” he said.
I shrugged. “Some foreign shore.”
He rubbed the edge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. “Well... I don’t know exactly what this is, but....”
“I found the presence of alkalis. They... they were the same kind we found in your mother. The same kind that killed her.”
I gripped the edge of the counter, though whether out of rage or to hold myself up, I didn’t know. The world receded from me then, and a shroud of darkness descended onto me.
When it cleared, I was staring into those warm brown eyes. “Are you well?” the man said.
I managed to nod. “I just had a shock,” I said. Then the tears came and I cursed myself for them. My shoulders shuddered and my fists clenched at my sides.
The man, who was Hieronymus, held me close and weathered the worst of the shuddering. “It’s going to be fine,” he said. “Everything’s going to be fine.” I didn’t know how, but I believed him.
♦ ♦ ♦
The sound of horse hooves on the path bring me back from the depths of recollection. I walk to the window and see Clytos dismounting. He is alone. His normal retinue have been left behind to give us some privacy.
I open the door for him and stand in the doorway, lit by the candles behind me. He comes toward me, smiling. His face is more weathered since I’ve last seen him, bronzed by the sun and buffed by the wind. He stands before me, a half head taller. I place a hand on the side of his face and kiss him. This man who is my father. Then I take him by the hand and pull him in.
“This is a warm welcome,” he says, placing his cloak and sword across a chair. Taking in the candles and the burning herbs.
“That was my intention,” I say. “Wine?”
He nods and takes up one of the cups, drinks deep. The hair on the sides of his head has the barest hint of grey, the first real signs of age I’ve seen in him.
“There are gifts, too,” I say.
“Gifts? For me? I thought I was the one who brought the gifts.” He says the last with a hint of mockery in his voice.
“Well, you’ve been away for months,” I say. “And I have grown some in that time. And I thought that you should have something worthy. Especially after your last gift.”
“Ah, the Pegasari,” he says. “That was a dear gift. But well spent, I think.”
“She is beautiful. And wondrous. But I have brought you something rarer, I think.”
His eyes scan the room and rest on the metal box. His eyebrows raise and I nod. He strides toward it and lifts the lid slowly, tenderly. A limp snake head tumbles free. He pulls back. “Is this...?”
“A Gorgon? Yes,” I say. “One of the last of its kind.”
He looks at me, his face serious. “You killed it?”
“You are full of surprises.”
“Open it all the way.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “What do you take me for?”
“Fine, I will,” I say and move past him to open the lid. I pull out the Gorgon’s head, now adorned with the mask that Hieronymus made for me. The bronze cast shows her face just as it was but protects us from her still-powerful gaze. My finger grazes against the catch on one upper corner, depresses it.
“Fascinating,” Clytos says. “And what am I to do with this?”
“I thought you might mount it on the prow of your ship. And reveal it when you close on your enemies.”
A smile dawns across his face. “A wonderful gift. Or is it a bargaining piece?”
“No, my lord,” I say. “Just a symbol of my gratitude. For what you did for my mother.” I point to the urn that holds her ashes, sitting on the mantel.
He smiles again, crueler this time, and places his hand on my throat, his fingers curling around my neck. Then he kisses me. Hard. His grip tight. I taste copper as his teeth find my lip, drawing blood.
“Your mother was so fierce when I first knew her,” he says, looking at the urn. “Wild. But she was tamed.” He turns to look at me. “By the city. By her circumstance.
“Except where it concerned you. Then she was as savage as any she-wolf with a cub to protect.” He steps closer, looks me in the eyes. “I think she would have even battled the gods for your sake.”
“She loved me,” I say.
He nods. “You are so beautiful.” I can see the hunger in his eyes. The mounting passion.
“There is one last gift,” I say, mindful of my time dwindling.
He looks at me, intrigued. “I thought you were my last gift.”
Not a gift. A prize. I shake my head. I remove the lacquered box from its shelf and hold it out to him.
He frowns. “What is that?” he asks.
“Don’t you recognize it, my lord? You sent it to my mother.”
He shrugs. “So I did. What of it?”
I hold it out to him. “Open it.” He hesitates. “Please, my lord.”
He stands up and walks toward me, the irritation plain on his face. With one hand, he raises the cover, sees the glass bottle. Then he lets the cover drop. “So? Why trifle me with this? Now?”
“Because I know of the poison,” I say. I keep my eyes on him. I will not look away.
His face twists in rage. One hand, the same he uses to raise the box lid, shoots out and grabs me again by the throat. Pain sparks up into my jaw. His strength, fueled by the Blood Olympos is staggering.
Lines from the letters he sent to my mother dance in my head. You steal my breath from me; I shall hold my breath ‘till we meet again; I am breathless....
I am breathless.
He forces me down. My vision streaks with black. My eyes bulge. His erection is still there, surging with his violence. I force my hands down from where they scrabble at his choking claw and I strike. I punch and claw and pull.
His grip lessens and I wrench away from him, sucking in great gobs of air. I turn to the gorgon’s head, but its blank bronze eyes stare back at me. Lifeless.
Clytos is back on me in an instant, a single tear on his cheek the only sign of the pain I caused. His hand grips me once again. Stronger. Harder.
I wonder if Hieronymus has failed me. And then I think that I will never see him again. Never feel the light of his smile, or feel his strong fingers on my skin.
A click sounds and I close my eyes, tight, though they can barely see, and I feel Clytos release me and I sag to the ground. Hieronymus’s mask and its embedded clockwork mechanism will have fallen away now. Clytos will have looked at it. Clytos will be....
I hear him chuckle.
I open my eyes to see the Gorgon head lolling in front of my bedroom, tossed, no doubt, by Clytos’s god-strong hands.
His eyes burn into me. “What exquisite treachery,” he says. “But I will have you. Then I will kill you. For you are mine and always have been.” He wrenches at my hair and pulls me up, almost snapping my neck like an olive branch.
Movement attracts my eyes. The soft flutter of downy wings near my bedroom door. The small shape, the tangle in my weave, the orphan I fetched from the Gorgon’s lair, bends down, one small hand reaching out for the head. Her mother’s head. Now cruelly used.
Tears blur my sight.
Clytos notices my attention, follows my gaze.
The young Gorgon lifts her head and I catch anger in the crinkle of her mouth and chin.
For when I see you, my eyes shall drink you in....
I look at Clytos’s face, not the girl’s. Never the girl’s. His eyes widen and he knows, then, in that moment, that he is undone.
His skin pales, and he is unnaturally still. He begins to turn grey, his bronzed skin hardening and shifting to stone.
In a moment, it is done, and he is a statue in my parlor. One hand encircles my throat, now with stony certainty. Another curls around my arm, holding me fast in violent embrace. That I can suck in a thin trickle of air does nothing to still the panic that rises in me.
I am trapped, and the statue that is now Clytos will not move no matter how I push and pull at him. He may kill me yet, I think. Though now I can go to the Underworld with my accounts settled. Now I will see my mother....
Thoughts of my mother remind me of the young Gorgon, and I see her tear-streaked face in my mind as she cradles her mother’s severed head.
I plant my feet and push. And push. And push until I’m sure my head will burst and my breath-starved muscles will strip apart.
Then I am falling, and Clytos’s stone form is falling, and we both crash to the ground in our frozen embrace. Then I am rolling free, Clytos’s hand still around my neck, clinging to me, crushing me.
I can not escape you....
Then the pressure eases and I suck in breath, greedily, at the air like water in a desert.
I hear the flutter of wings and know that the girl has saved me. Has saved the killer of her mother. I scrabble for the mirrored glasses, where they lie on the table. Where they were meant for her mother’s gaze. I fit them to my face.
She stares up at me, wide-eyed. Her little hand still hovers near Clytos’s arm, where she somehow released me, crumbling his fingers to dust. Then she extends that hand to me.
Tears blurring my sight, I reach for her and take her hand.
♦ ♦ ♦
I bury Clytos on my mother’s land, together with his letters. He may yet be found, but not easily.
Still, they will come looking for him, and so I must not be here when they arrive. I pack my things, gathering the few objects the hold meaning for me. Then, with the child alongside me, now hooded, I move to Ariadne.
Hieronymus is waiting for me at the horse. “The Blood Olympos,” he says.
“Was not spilled.”
“By either of you,” he adds.
“I would give it away if I could.”
He grabs my hand. His touch is so unlike Clytos’s, confident but kind. Warm. “No. You must make them take it from you.”
I kiss him, and inhale the scent of him, taste him. Breathe him. Then I take him with one hand, the hand of the girl in my other, and together we walk away from a world of stone.