Persephone stands at Tantalus’ side. “What is the secret of the gods?” she asks him.
“They are born, ” he says, “to fill emptiness.”
“You are empty, ” she says cruelly. “You stand in a land of plenty, but when you reach for fruit, the wind whips the branches away. When you reach for water, it drains into the parched earth. Are you, then, a mother to gods?”
“I am dead,” he says. “Else I should craft such gods as to sunder the world.”
“I hate you,” she says.
It is 1308 years before the common era. Sunlight floods the surface world. Oenomaus of Pisa cannot appreciate it. His mortality worries him. He summons the oracle of his house.
“Oracle!” cries King Oenomaus. “Speak unto me of my death.”
“You shall have a daughter,” the oracle says. “Hippodamia by name, and of all the girls in mortal Greece, she shall be the most beautiful and the most empty. Many men shall vie for her.”
King Oenomaus wrinkles his nose. “Is this going to be a kissing destiny?”
“When a King asks about how he’s going to die, he wants a rip-roaring story. You know. Swordsmen. Cyclopes. Suicide. Horses and princesses with inconceivable names. Miracles. Pain beyond endurance. True love and cold callous betrayal in about a two-to-one mix. Not kissing.”
“It has all these things,” the oracle says. “And kissing too.”
Oenomaus sighs. “Speak on, then.”
“The guy who marries her kills you,” the oracle says sulkily.
Oenomaus laughs. “Then she shall never marry,” he says.
Hippodamia grows older. She speaks to the oracle. “Will I know true love?” she asks.
The oracle stares at her for a long time. Then he shakes his head. “It would take a miracle.”
It is 1290 years before the common era. The hills are green. The sky is blue. Princess Hippodamia has many suitors, each a handsome Prince. She walks alone in the woods, thinking on their virtues.
“Marmax,” she says. “He has the quality of promptness. If I married him, he should never be late. Acrias has a true kingdom, and Eioneus might be Zeus’ grandson. Erythras has credentials that I do not entirely understand, but that seem to involve society connections; and Cronius is handsome quite.”
Hippodamia sighs. She holds up a hand. A bird flutters down to alight upon it. She rubs its head.
“None of them,” she tells the bird, “compare to Pelops, to whom my heart is given.”
The bird chirps.
“It’s a sad story,” she says. “We might have had true love. Then someone stole Pelops’ heart. His father boiled Pelops down for stew. Afterwards, Pelops was buried alive and finally drowned at sea before getting captured and killed by pirates.”
The birds sings for a moment.
“That’s true,” Hippodamia says. “If he had no heart, he couldn’t have given it to me. But he could have given me something else.”
The bird tilts its head to one side.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Whatever he had handy?”
Someone clears his throat. The bird startles and flies away. Hippodamia turns. She sees a cyclope, a charioteer, and a hero. Then she sees the cyclope’s fist and all goes black.
She awakens on a boat.
“What do you want?” she asks.
The cyclope speaks:
“Unwelcome in Poseidon’s palace,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Olympus with my bootless cries,
And kidnap princesses, and curse my fate.”
The small man at the front of the boat turns and sneers. “He fancies himself a poet.”
The cyclope says, mournfully:
“Tell me, where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?”
“I am Myrtilus,” the small man says. “I am kidnapping you and taking you to the Cliffs of Insanity, where I will kill you. This is Phisixus, my cyclope, and Pelagon Montoya, my hero.”
“My father will save me!” she declares.
“Perhaps,” Myrtilus says enigmatically.
“We’re being followed,” Pelagon says laconically.
Myrtilus turns to look. Phisixus turns to look. Hippodamia dives into the water. There’s a shriek. An eel devours her.
Back in the palace, Oenomaus speaks to his oracle.
“My daughter has been kidnapped,” he says. “I hired a charioteer, a hero, and a cyclope to kidnap her, take her to the Cliffs of Insanity, and kill her.”
“My prediction stands,” the oracle says. “I suspect she will have a marvelous adventure and wind up married instead of or immediately before her execution.”
“I had not thought of that,” Oenomaus admits. “Perhaps I should fetch her back. Where is she now?”
“She has just been eaten by an eel.”
Oenomaus frowns. “Hey! I thought she was supposed to get married!”
“You sound upset,” the oracle says, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m not upset,” Oenomaus says. “I wanted her to die. I just, you know, an eel? That can’t be right. Read the portents again.”
The oracle shrugs. “Maybe it wasn’t fatal.”
Elsewhere, Myrtilus frowns. “All right,” he says. “We’ve lost the princess, and there’s a boat behind us with a man in black in it, and he’s gaining fast.”
“He’ll be on us before we reach the Cliffs of Insanity,” Pelagon says.
Myrtilus stands. He shouts. “Inconceivable!”
“I do not think—” the cyclope begins.
The water stirs. A chariot drawn by a white-crested horse of the tide charges up to the ship.
“It’s the name of my horse,” Myrtilus says, caressing the horse’s mane. “She’s from Poseidon’s own herd.” He climbs into the chariot. “Phisixus. Come with me. We shall scale the Cliffs of Insanity. Pelagon, turn your boat around and meet this man in black, and defeat him with your swordplay.”
Phisixus leaps and lands atop the chariot, which sways precariously. An eel screams. Myrtilus turns the chariot, cracks the whip, and gallops off across the waves.
“I’ll do it,” Pelagon says. He dances on the deck of the ship, waving his sword about. In short order, the two ships converge; and Pelagon goes still.
“Pelops,” he says, and sinks to one knee.
Myrtilus looks back. He leans down to touch the horse’s mane. “Inconceivable,” he whispers. “Run faster; he has tamed my hero.”
The horse breaks upon the cliffs of insanity, dissolving into the surf. The cyclope clings to the cliff with Myrtilus on his back. He climbs. They reach the top.
“Still he follows,” mutters the cyclope.
“Unacceptable!” cries Myrtilus. In the sky above him, the horses of the sun writhe within their harness, and the horse Unacceptable burns down from the sky to strike like a meteor at his feet. He speaks three words, and a burning chariot forms behind it.
“Phisixus,” Myrtilus says, “hold him back, I pray.”
The horse gallops away; and the man in black climbs; and Phisixus kneels before him. “Pelops,” he says.
“Where will he go?” Pelops asks, looking at the scorch-mark trail Myrtilus has left.
“To King Oenomaus,” Phisixus says. “There to report on the failure of his crimes.”
“I am a fool,” Pelops whispers.
King Oenomaus looks to the sea; and the sea rises like the anger of the gods; and a great wall of it crashes down upon his keep. His guards wash back into the walls. His fortifications creak. King Oenomaus tumbles back. Yet the sea is gentle, and does not kill, and the water recedes again. In the courtyard he sees a flopping eel; and when his men gut it, his daughter emerges.
“Hippodamia,” he says, and embraces her.
“Father,” she says. She holds back tears. “I was kidnapped. And then an eel ate me. And then I was here! It was awful!”
Oenomaus considers. “But did you get married to anyone?”
Hippodamia looks at him blankly. “. . . I think you have an overglamorous notion of what goes on inside an eel.”
“I had rather expected you’d be digested,” he says.
She looks down at her untarnished skin. “I suppose this is Poseidon’s work,” she says neutrally.
“Aha!” he says. “You’ve been dallying with Poseidon!”
“There wouldn’t’ve been room in the eel,” she says. “It wasn’t like getting eaten by the kraken, you know.”
Oenomaus looks up. He can see the galloping horse of the sun approaching. He turns to his daughter. “Go to your room and rest. You’ve had a busy day.”
“That’s true,” Hippodamia admits. “It’s naptime!”
She runs off.
A few minutes later, Myrtilus reaches the castle. He releases the horse, which begins a searing ascent into the sky. “I’m sorry,” he says. “An eel ate her. Then a man in black came after us and somehow subverted both hero and cyclope.”
“No doubt a suitor,” Oenomaus says. “He wanted to catch her and marry her while she was out of my sight; but he’ll come here next.”
Myrtilus considers. “If you tell him ‘no’, he’ll kill you. He’s that fierce.”
“Then what can I do?”
Myrtilus shrugs. “Hold a contest. If a suitor wants her, he has to race you to the Isthmus of Corinth. If he loses, you get to kill him. If he wins, he claims her hand. With our horses and my charioteering skill, there’s no way you can lose.”
“There are far too many suitors about,” Oenomaus admits. “Very well. Post the proclamations.”
The man in black reaches the castle. He eyes the gates. He sees the posted proclamation. He thinks for a time. Then he waits. He waits and watches as Oenomaus races and kills eleven suitors; and when the last one falls, he sneaks past the gate and into Myrtilus’ room.
“Pelops,” Myrtilus gasps, and falls to one knee. “But . . . you died!”
“So I did,” Pelops says evenly.
“Your father boiled you down for stew. He added an onion.”
“The gods grieved that Tantalus had slain me. They reconstituted my flesh and bones and returned me to life.”
“You were buried alive,” Myrtilus points out.
“My shoulder was,” Pelops says, “for it was eaten by Cybele, Demeter, the lady of the harvest; and it slept under the earth for full measure of winter before she crafted me a new shoulder of iron and ivory.”
“I was an ugly and resentful child,” Pelops says. “But these things were boiled away. I came out of the stewpot beautiful and confident; and Poseidon took me down into the sea, and filled my lungs with water, and I carried his cup and served at his side for many years. That is why when I spoke to the eel, it consumed Hippodamia but did not harm her, and delivered her here on the crest of the sea.”
“You were also captured and killed by pirates.”
“Come now, Myrtilus. You must not believe every rumor you hear.”
“Then what shall you do, my lord?”
“I shall race,” Pelops says. “And you shall rig Oenomaus’ chariot to kill him.”
“I will do this thing,” Myrtilus says, “if only you shall allow me to remain by your side.”
Morning dawns, and Pelops and Oenomaus enter their chariots side by side.
“You have no horses,” Pelops says.
“You will note,” Oenomaus says, “that the harness hangs upright in air; so I shall say, not that I have no horses, but that the horses of this chariot are the north and south wind, and they shall not fail me.”
“Don’t fall too far behind!” Pelops says, and cracks the reins, and his horses charge away.
Oenomaus smirks. “He’s so going to get it,” he says. He wraps the tethers to the wind, one around each arm. He cracks the reins. Behind him, the oracle shakes his head sadly. The tethers snap tight. One wind blows north. The other, south. In an instant, Oenomaus rips himself apart. Leisurely, Pelops turns his chariot around and parks it by the gate.
“I declare victory,” he languids.
From the crowd behind, he hears a scream. Hippodamia races through the press of people. “You’re Pelops,” she says. She takes his head in his hands. She kisses him, full on. “Oh, do. Do be Pelops. And not dead.”
“As you wish,” he says.
“But how?” she asks. “I’ve only been asleep for a few days!”
“I have come here to marry you,” he says, “and give you three things.”
He gestures. Myrtilus and Pelagon approach. Phisixus emerges from behind the castle walls.
“These,” he says. “A charioteer, a hero, and a cyclope.”
Hippodamia recoils. “Why?”
Myrtilus goes pale.
“When my father tossed me in the pot,” Pelops says, “he took my heart from me; and my mind; and this left me empty. Then my ugliness boiled away, and left me emptier. Taking pity on this emptiness, Poseidon inspired creatures to fill it: a woman beauteous and kind, to be my wife; a charioteer that could tame even the horses of the sun; a hero of surpassing prowess; and a cyclope out of legend. Some of my mind has returned to me. But I have no heart and cannot give you love. I can only give you the creatures of my emptiness.”
“I am called empty,” Hippodamia says. “I show limited concern when eaten by eels and nap for days at a time. Yet I manifest no such creatures.”
Myrtilus says, trembling, “My lord, I am yours. Not hers. I have killed for this, and now you toss me away.”
“Peace, Myrtilus,” Pelops says. “It is not so great a change as that.”
The castle goes quiet, and waits for the wedding. In the night, Myrtilus walks down to the sea.
“I am his heart,” Myrtilus says. “Part of his love. Yet is there no love that he shall retain for himself? Shall he thus casually toss me away? A curse on his house, and all of his descendants; I shall not live to see her service.”
The horse Inconceivable comes to his side, and he mounts the white creature, and he rides until he drowns.
In the watchtower of the castle, Hippodamia watches. She makes an unhappy face for a while, and then she smiles. “Well,” she says, “A two thirds true love isn’t so bad.”