Six’s Story

There is a place far away, a rocky cave well-lit by fires and by mosses’ glow, and there the numbers gather every year. They are assembled, will they or nill they, from the great infinity of the world. Eight of them, always, have seen that place before; one of them, each year, is new.

1.

Helen finds herself swept from the world and into distant places.

“We will call you One,” Nine says.

And Helen, staring at Nine, sees the incredible beauty of her: the clean pure goodness of Nine that radiates from every pore.

And so she says, with the breath taken out of her, “Okay.”

And Nine leads her to a gathering where people stand around a table: and there is punch, and fruit, and music, and light conversation; and running under it all an electric current of mathematics that gives articulated numeric definition to every word that every person says, so that the play of conversation is like the shared construction of a proof, so that the music is like a counterpoint to the logical arguments that the convocation advances, so that the selection of each fruit or sip of punch is a new axiom or lemma.

“Hi,” says Helen shyly, and she feels the Theorem of Introduction form to give hard structural backbone to those words.

And Five smiles at her, disablingly, and says, “You belong with us,” and his words are proof of fact.

“Oh,” she sighs, and then she looks to Nine, and asks, “This is really okay? I’m supposed to be here?”

But Nine has drifted away, and where she stood there is a void like a contradiction.

The room stills.

“Six,” says Five.

“Six,” say the others.

They have turned to see the newest arrival, and they are all murmuring her name.

Looking at Six, Helen thinks: Surely this is the greatest lady in all the world.

Six is tall and graceful and her eyes are fixed on Nine: and Nine meets her by the entrance and their hands touch: and then Nine walks away.

And Six stares after her, her eyes unfocused, and Helen realizes that something is wrong.

She sees a truth but not its reasoning.

She asks, “Where is Nine going?”

And, “Why is Six afraid of Seven?”

But there is no one listening to her just then to give the answer to those words.

2.

Two is in the shadows.

He is nervous, as is typical for him. He does not expect Six to feel a fierce and consuming joy on seeing him. He would not believe her if she told him that that joy was there.

But it burns in her.

She loves the crookedness of his nose.

She loves the thickness of him. She loves the gentleness.

She hugs him, when they meet, and he is distant and afraid of touch, but still he stammers, “It is good to have you here.”

And Six nods, and she goes to pull away, but he stops her.

“Six always survives,” he says. “Remember that.”

Six always survives.

And she moves on.

3.

Three is crooked, wry, and sinister.

“We all have a dark heart,” he says.

“You wish,” Six tells him.

Three looks wounded. “I’m totally evil,” he says. “Look, I’m cackling.”

He lifts his head. He braces himself. Then he laughs a wicked laugh.

“Hwa, ha ha ha ha.”

He cannot sustain the laugh under her level gaze.

Your reasoning is inconclusive, her eyes say.

He breaks down in giggles, and she has won the point.

“And when,” she asks, “will you act on this terrible evil inside you?”

“Soon enough,” he says. “Soon enough.”

He grins a bit.

“Perhaps next year,” he says. “When I am Four.”

She hugs him once, then she moves on.

4.

Four is a crone. She is half-asleep.

Six takes her hand, gently. She says, “Four?”

And Four wakes up.

Four smiles to her.

It is a perfect smile. It is the kind of smile you do not learn in the first eighty years of your life. Some people do not even learn it in their first hundred.

It is the kind of smile that abandons all the false conceits we learn in childhood and simply grants light unto the world.

“Why is it only every year?” Six asks. “That I can see you all?”

“It is too good,” says Four. “It is too good to be too common.”

5.

Five is terribly handsome. Six thinks about interrupting the story to have sex with him right then, but it is probably for the best to wait.

Instead, they kiss.

“You could stay here,” he proposes.

“And leave Seven unpunished?”

“Which is more important?” he says. “Kissing, or revenge?”

“Kissing,” she says. “But honor trumps them both.”

“Honor is an unverified hypothesis,” he sighs.

But he lets her go.

7.

Seven is in the back, staring at the wall.

Seven says, “Listen.”

“Hm?” Six asks.

“Did you ever think that people might be fundamentally in error regarding their desires?” Seven asks.

“No,” Six says.

“It would be logical,” Seven says. “As they are in error regarding everything else.”

She turns on Six. There is blood at the corner of Seven’s mouth; blood on her hands; blood smeared along her face. She gestures broadly and her fingernails are black with it.

Six’s fear chills her.

“Ask twenty people for a binary truth,” Seven says, “And get twenty different answers. Seek the good for humanity, and discover that in the end they do not want the good; that their needs are contradictory; that their suffering is also their apotheosis. So I say: people are in error regarding their desires. They do not want happiness, wholeness, glory. They desire the natural culmination of the flesh, that is, to be eaten by a superior predator. To be devoured; made great; incorporated into something larger than themselves.”

Six counts on her fingers.

Six says, “You’re committing an error of precedence.”

Seven narrows her eyes. “Eh?”

“That blood.”

“Seven ate nine,” Seven murmurs lucidly.

“Right.”

“And?”

“So Nine didn’t become part of something larger than herself. She became part of something smaller.”

Seven frowns at Six.

“Conservation of energy,” Seven dismisses, “disagrees.”

There is no answer that Six may give to that. It is both indisputable and wrong.

So Six does not answer.

Instead she stares at Seven for a while. She tries to see the person that she knows— the person that she loves, the person she’s eaten ice cream with, laughed with, stayed up far too late arguing theorems with— under the blood.

Six says, softly, “You know why we are here.”

“I do,” Seven says.

“Do you understand what must be done?”

“Every year,” Seven says, “we meet, and we go through the senseless ritual of it. The castigation of seven. The revenge upon the digit, the ritual magic, to impress upon |N, the space of natural numbers, that never again shall one number feast upon another. Every year, Six, it becomes a little more cloying, a little more ridiculous, a little more false. It is not the successor function that is the law, Six. It is the function of consumption, the predecessor function, the grim spectre of death counting downwards from infinity.”

“That’s bad number theory!” Six protests.

And Seven is close in on her now, and with a knife held in her trembling hand, and Seven demands, “Silence!”

And all becomes tableau.

Until finally, Seven withdraws a bit and says, “What you say is true, but like any other problem in mathematics, the difficulty may be resolved using limits.”

“Seven,” pleads Six.

Her voice shakes.

“I don’t recognize you,” Six says.

“Next year, when you are Seven, perhaps you will.”

“No.”

“Next year,” Seven says, “you will see the gaping moral flaw that underlies all the mathematics that we know; and you will curse yourself for standing by your principles instead of standing at my back.”

“That may be so,” Six agrees.

Seven sighs.

She drops the knife. She lowers her head. She stands there like a prisoner condemned.

“Seven,” Six says. “I name you beast. I name you betrayer. In this place I say I am your judge, and I find you guilty of murder and of treason.”

“And what is your sentence?”

8.

Successor,” Six says.

It is a curse.

It is a judgment.

Seven increments into the principle of devouring.

9.

Six comes to the end of her journey there.

She stands in cutting silence.

Then she turns around and she trudges back to the others.

They are gathered around a table in the main room of the first ten natural numbers, and they are talking, and there is good cheer; but when they see her the room falls silent.

The new One— Helen, if Six recalls— looks at her with wounded eyes.

And then:

“Come here,” says Five.

And he seizes Six into comfort; and all around her are Two, and Three, and Five, and Four looks on and says, “I am proud.”

And Six says, “Seven ate nine,” because Seven did, and it is painful to her, to say, to admit, to know.

Nine, so vibrant:

So alive:

Just one year back from her interlude in Hell; just two years back from madness; just three years back from standing there as Six and issuing a judgment:

And now devoured.

“Nine always dies,” Two says.

10.

“But,” says Ten.

And suddenly Six pulls herself apart from all the crowd. She stares seized up with wonder. She knows Ten’s voice, and she had never thought to hear it in her ears again.

And she says, “You survived.”

“I was reborn,” Ten says, to contradict her.

“You survived,” she says.

Last year’s Nine.

Ten is clean-limbed and strong and better than any devoured number has any right to be.

And Ten says, brightly, “Did you know, if you increment enough, you get an extra digit?”

“I knew,” weeps Six. “We knew. But we had forgotten.”

And to One she says, displaying Ten to Helen as if Ten were a jewel: “This is what we can become.”

A legend about spring.

Paradise Forgotten

Sing, O muse, of the siege of Illidium,
That opened up the tower to the moon
And left fair Helen’s plans in ruin
And nearly unleashed destruction on the world.

Hippolyta has made her child out of clay.

The girl stands there, frozen, lifeless, shaped with that surprising finesse that mothers have upon the potter’s wheel.

“It’s all in the fingerwork,” Hippolyta says.

But soon her pride gives way to tears, and she says, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Oh, Diana, don’t wake up.”

For Hippolyta is one who knows the secrets of the world.

She’d wanted to stop the pottery partway through. Sometime during the creation of the girl Hippolyta had realized how damnable and evil her work might be; that the curse of this girl would bind her to the pagan gods, to the dark and horrid gods who’d held sway in these lands those long cold centuries before the preachers came.

So she’d wanted to stop.

But her husband hadn’t let her, and the law was on his side.

She’d shaped the girl as best as she could over the grueling months at the potter’s wheel. She’d made Diana to resist the lure of darkness. She’d made the girl to have some good in her. She’d tried, as was mandated by the law, to care.

But now the pottery is complete and the law leaves Hippolyta to her mourning.

She turns away.

She goes to her bed and she sleeps, and there she has a dream.

“We will gift her,” say the pagan gods, the ancient gods, the accursed gods. “We will gift her with our powers.”

And there is the road runner who gives unto the girl that terrible speed with which it flees the judgment of the angels.

And the coyote, part beast, part man, who gives to her that reforming, rebuilding, sanity-defying cellular regeneration that sustains him against the ceaseless wrath of God.

And the pig-beast, dwelling now in some fell sty within the Pit, who gives to her his “power of conclusion.”

And the rabbit with its cunning; and the duck with its madness; and the sheepdog; and the slovenly Fudd; and the swan.

They give the girl their gifts, one by one, and that is the dream of Hippolyta on that night.

And she wakes with a cry and she fears the curse of Galatea and she rushes to her child’s side; and she sees that beneath her husband’s ministrations her generative power has marshalled life to clay.

And her daughter, whose name is thus Diana, she takes into her arms, and she weeps, and she prays, “Let you be sacred. Let you be sacred. Let you not be damned.”

But in the girl’s eyes there is the madness of the gods.

**

It is some twelve years later.

Mars burns red in the night.

“Please,” whispers Helen.

She is an astronaut. She has earned her place on the first manned Mars mission by being approximately 40% better than any man. Yet still there is the fear.

She knows, as she has always known, from the moment her mother shaped her out of clay, that she is cursed.

“At the moment that you should achieve your greatest ambition,” say the words woven into the clay of her, the weave and weft of her, “you shall fall instead into unimaginable pain.”

She has coped in the only fashion she knows how: by intending ever greater things. From the moment success seems possible, she is setting the stage for a greater ambition; and so far, this plan has served her well.

She holds two doctorates.

She has several world records in marathon and track events.

She has played professional football; been one bad referee ruling away from a Super Bowl victory; cured cancer by developing a new kind of cell; and now she is on the first manned mission to Mars.

“Don’t let this be the one,” she says.

And she plans how she might become President, after, or scale the heights of the Omphalos; or break into the Garden that was Lost.

The ship shudders.

Mars burns.

And then the ship is gone, the spacesuit is gone, the air is gone; these things are stripped from her, and she hangs in nothingness before the great red face of Mars.

“Helen Alexandros,” says the voice of Mars.

She is dying. She cannot breathe. Her eyes hurt most terribly, and she is cold.

“Helen Alexandros, I will give you power. I will make you immortal. I will give you wings. But it is God’s will that you should destroy the Earth.”

Her lips are cracked. She speaks her last breath: “Illudium.”

What this means even Helen does not know.

“You must accept, Helen. You must accept the power of Mars or you shall die, and God shall cast you down into the Pit.”

Forgive me, she thinks.

And she accepts.

**

Down into the world she plummets, burning, screaming, coated in silver.

She lands.

For a very long time, she rests upon the earth and heals.

**

There is a tower wherein Pandora dwells.

She is locked there forever. She must never walk free. That is the doom worked into her—

For it is impossible, as all men know, to shape a girl from the clay who hath not her own and personal doom, in furtherance to the sin of Eve—

That she should never leave.

Inside her flesh there boil demons of all kinds.

If she is freed then they shall be freed to swarm over the world. Then shall God turn his burning eye aside and send down Heavenly waters and the world shall drown in sorrow and in pain.

Ah!

She is fragile, Pandora.

She is easily crushed.

The law would not allow her firing.

Outside of her tower, at this very moment, the great black red-eyed dogs look up, because Helen Alexandros comes.

Her footfalls are like a distant thunder.

Her shadow is black like a pool of pitch.

“You will let me through,” she says.

She is dressed not as an astronaut but as a masked supervillain: Illudium, The Swan.

And she says, “You will let me through;” and when the dogs do not yield, but rather bark, Illudium shrieks, and such is the modulation of space held in that cry that the closest dogs explode and the remaining dogs fly back, land broken.

And casually she tears the wire fence aside, and knocks from their posts the cameras, and with one shriek as from a thousand lips bursts topless the tower; and Illudium—

Sweet Helen, to tear the world asunder with her kiss—

Strides forward to take Pandora.

But:

“Beep beep!” beeps Diana, racing up from some distant region and stopping there, quivering, before Illudium;

And she is young, still, not yet the hero she will become, but something in her heart responded when the tower of Pandora fell, and so she came;

And there is something about her that gives Illudium concern.

“Hmph,” snorts Illudium, the Swan.

She opens her mouth. She lets forth a lick of sound, just enough to make a person’s head explode; and Diana’s face grows crisp and frizzed with black and her eyes are horrified and startled in it. But as Illudium turns away she knows that something is terribly, obscenely wrong.

Diana is not dead. She is merely holding up a sign that says, “Ow!”

Slowly, Illudium turns back.

Illudium says: “Art thou what the world has raised up as champion to me?”

“I am the urn that holds the ashes of the gods,” Diana says.

Her face is scarcely burnt at all, now. Her ears have healed.

“Then I will scatter them,” says Illudium, “and no more this world will know the presence of such gods.”

And as she conceives this intention and opens her mouth wider to kill Diana with a roar, Illudium feels a cold knife of horror twist inside her, as if she were standing in the presence of a blasphemy.

And winged words flow through Diana like a wind, and Diana says:

“They were here before your God, and they will be here after. They are the filthy things, the horrid things, the gambolers in dark places, the cold, cruel, evil lustful things, the piping praisers of the darkness at the heart of the cosmos. They are eternal and they do not yield.”

And it is in that moment, and strangely, not before, that Illudium sees—

With a sharpness, like the cracking of a pot—

That all that which she has valued in her life is false. That the structures of the world that should sustain her are nothing more than waypoints of purity thrust into an abyssal darkness that even the burning eye of God does not illumine. That reality is madness; and life, as malleable as clay.

And the thin black line that is Diana’s smile grows larger, and darker, and it consumes the world like the very opposite of a Cheshire cat, and for all the explosive modulation of the space inside her there is no haven for Helen Alexandros’ soul;

And “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks,” says Diana;

And of Illudium, we do not speak.

(Tired Bonus) A Thousand Mice

Helen is a teenaged girl living in Brooklyn.

On the evening of April 3rd, 1997, Helen comes home from a shopping trip. She’s hiding her face behind a box and carrying a mouse cage in her free hand. She lugs it into her room. It’s a typical teen girl’s room, except that its walls are padded and it has no mirrors. It has two windows. One window is open. It has no screen, but there’s a piece of paper taped over the opening. It’s a big note, written on construction paper. It says, “No Launching! – Tyndareus”

Helen puts down the cage.

She looks at the note.

LAUNCH!

The note flies through the air. It flutters, flutters, flutters down to the Earth below.

Helen does not look at the cage. She opens it.

A mouse runs out. It runs around. It squeaks. Suddenly, it sees Helen’s face.

LAUNCH!

Another mouse runs around. It squeaks. Suddenly, it sees Helen’s face.

LAUNCH!

The last mouse walks out. It is quiet and dignified. It is a solid gentleman of a mouse. It looks up. It opens its mouth to squeak.

LAUNCH!

Flutter, flutter, flutter, down to the Earth below.

“Helen?”

It’s her adoptive father’s voice! Helen quickly hides her face behind the box so she doesn’t launch him. Then she turns. “Yes, father?”

Tyndareus’ voice is wry and gentle. “The neighbors say it’s raining mice again.”

“I’m trying to get to a thousand,” Helen says.

She’s hiding her face behind a box labelled “e-Life.” It’s a promotional box for a revolutionary Internet-aware life management application! Treading the thin line between an Outlook clone and a massively multiplayer online RPG, e-Life proved impossible for its original designers to launch. Helen hasn’t launched it yet, but she doesn’t quite trust it—the box always seems as light and trembly as feathers in her hands.

“If I launch a thousand mice,” Helen says, “then I won’t launch mice any more, and I can keep one as a pet. But if I don’t launch them on purpose, then I’ll launch them every time I happen across one, and I’ll be old and gray before I can buy one to keep!”

“I suppose that’s true,” Tyndareus says. “But couldn’t you aim them away from the street?”

“Father!” Helen says. “If they don’t fly out the window, they’ll hit the wall!”

She’s so shocked by his suggestion that she lowers the box.

LAUNCH!

Tyndareus flies through the air. He hits the wall. It’s padded, of course. He lands with a long-suffering slump.

“Five hundred and seventy-nine,” he says.

“Oops,” Helen blushes.

“You know,” he says, “if I can survive it, the mice probably can. And it’s less of a fall.”

Helen blushes deeper.

“I didn’t think of that,” she admits.

She hangs her head.

“It’s okay,” he says. Then he laughs. “Hey,” he says, “you’ll be through launching me before you’re old and gray.”

“That’s true,” she agrees.

“Before I’m old and gray, even,” he says.

“You’re pretty old already, Daddy,” she says.

He grins. “Maybe,” he says.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey?”

“Hey,” she says, and she’s suddenly looking pretty sad, “Hey, I was wondering, is it because I’m ugly?”

Random Genealogical Interjection

See also
Genealogy: the People of Salt and
Genealogy: the Monster

Lia and Amiel were sisters who survived the destruction of Sodom.

Amiel swore to protect Lia’s family forever.

Lia had children, and they had children, and eventually you wound up with Aerope of Crete. Aerope had children by Atreus and Thyestes, including Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Pelopia. Her line zigzagged off in a couple of directions: for instance, to Priyanka, by way of Menelaus and Helen of Troy, and to the first hero Ella, probably by way of Agamemnon. That’s where we think the ancestry of Liril and Jenna diverged, by the way: Liril inheriting from Helen of Troy and Jenna not so much. That said, there’s plenty of genes in the pool, and certain disreputable scholars claim that just about all the people of salt have a common ancestor in Helen’s daughter Hermione.

We call this family the Nephilim.

Meanwhile, Amiel’s line became the House of Atreus, which hooked together with the people of salt up at that mention of Atreus above. The two bloodlines didn’t become one people, though; genealogy or no genealogy, Amiel’s heirs fissioned off and stayed fissioned off as the line of monsters.

By the time you had Nabonidus in Babylon, the House of Atreus was a pretty serious threat to just about everything. Its branch in India was mysteriously culled back around 583, and the American House had problems of its own, but the Middle Eastern lineage was going strong and educing all kinds of domesticated gods from the Nephilim there.

They were a threat even to the throne of the world!

So everyone breathed a sigh of relief, more or less, when Mylitta was born.

At last! the world thought.

At last, the world thought, somebody would do something!

Because heroes can kill monsters. That’s in the rule book. Heroes can kill monsters. All Mylitta had to do was kill off Nabonidus and cut a swathe of blood through his family and Babylon’s aristocracy, burn the ground and salt the earth, and maybe spend a few decades wandering the earth murdering whatever representatives of her ancestor’s sister’s family she could find, and then everything would be all right forever.

And that’s exactly what she did!

Except for the part where she didn’t do any of it, at all, causing no end of historians who were not there and don’t know what it was like and never had to do anything hard in their entire lives to look down on her.

But it’s OK.

It’s OK.

She won!

It’s like we said a long time ago.

Shame was set 556 years before the common era.

17 years later, in 539 BCE, the hero Mylitta would make an answer to monsters forever and ever;

and they would deliver the world from sorrow.

Aegisthus (IV/IV)

Tell me, oh muse, of the decision of Aegisthus, who learned the truth of his heritage: son and grandson both of the monster Thyestes, who sired him by force on Pelopia’s womb. Tell me of Aegisthus, who stood with sword in hand in the cold wet cell where Thyestes sat enchained, and chose, not to kill, but to strike free the monster’s chains. I must turn to you, oh muse, for this decision is not one I can encompass; but still he made it; and so have countless others through the years; down the line from one to another, to the monster Jenna and Liril knew.

**

It is 1212 years before the common era. The sun in the clouds is the color of a flame. A young boy named Aegisthus stands upon a hill. He holds a sword. He cuts his hand with it and smears its edge with blood. Then he thrusts it into the ground. The world cracks open. He calls out, “Tiresias! Tiresias! Prophet and oracle!” A ghost suspires from the ground and sips the blood from the edge of the sword.

“Oracle,” Aegisthus says. “I am Aegisthus, son of Atreus, and one day I shall be King. Yet I wish to be more. My ambition does not end with such paltry measures. I must command the gods themselves. Speak me an oracle. Give me an answer to my dream.”

Tiresias turns blind, dead eyes on Aegisthus. “Many in the world have desires. Why should yours take precedence?”

Aegisthus shrugs.

Tiresias sighs. “What you ask is impossible. If you must attempt it, then go to the spring of the nymph Cyane and wake her with your blood.”

The earth takes breath, and pulls Tiresias away. Aegisthus withdraws his sword and the world grinds closed.

The next morning, four people leave Mycenae. Aegisthus goes to Sicily, where the spring of Cyane is found. His half-brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus travel to the Oracle, searching for the King’s hated brother Thyestes. These three leave with fanfare and with wealth, for Atreus King loves them well; but Atreus’ youngest wife, Pelopia, hearing certain rumors regarding Leda’s daughter Helen, walks away in silence, and few mark her departure.

Aegisthus takes a boat, and then a road, and finds himself in Sicily next to an ancient spring. He stirs the water with his finger. It forms an image. Aegisthus sees the chariot of Hades, charging across the world, with captive Persephone in Hades’ arms. Then the nymph Cyane rises from the stream. She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“‘No,'” Aegisthus says, watching the image of her mouth. “‘No,’ she says, and ‘Go no further! This maiden must be asked, not taken.'”

Then Hades smites the spring, and the world cracks open, and his chariot gallops down into the Underworld, and the waters of the spring seal over. Cyane weeps, and as she cries, she loses substance, until the spring and nymph alike are nothing but her tears.

The water goes still. The vision ends. Aegithus frowns. He cuts his hand. He smears his sword with blood. He dips it through the water to touch the stone Hades’ sceptre broke.

“Ew.” Cyane rises from the pool. “Ew. Don’t do that. Ick. Ew.”

“What?”

Aegisthus, uncertainly, withdraws his sword.

“Memories. Symbolism. Mind in the gutter.” Cyane looks at him. She shudders. “What do you want?”

“Can you do impossible things?”

“I’ve tried. I failed. I wish I could.”

“I am Aegisthus,” he says, “son of Atreus. I wish to sit at Olympus on the high god’s throne; or, if I cannot, that my heirs should do so. I spoke of this to the dead prophet Tiresias, and he sent me to you.”

She sits on a rock and thinks.

“So I’d rather like you to tell me what to do,” he says. “Or give me some kind of magic to achieve my ends.”

She thinks more.

“Please?”

Cyane looks at him. Her expression is calm. “Go home,” she says. “Call for me again when everything you know is true proves false.”

“It’s a long walk,” he says.

“You’ve got sandals,” she answers. So he leaves.

Cyane sits upon a stone. She thinks. Then she turns to the water, and an image of Persephone forms. Persephone looks up.

“Cyane!” she says. Her voice is glad and bright. Cyane smiles crookedly.

“I’d thought you might be angry,” Cyane says.

“Why?”

“I failed.”

Persephone thinks about that for a moment. Then she reaches up a finger to touch the surface of the water; and Cyane sets her hand upon it; and for a time, the two of them are still.

“I have anger, hate, and rage enough,” Persephone says, “to fill the world, and slosh against each person in it. But none for you.”

“Can I free you?”

“No,” Persephone says. “It’s impossible, even for a nymph.”

“But you’d like me to.”

Persephone sighs. “There’s that in all of us that wants the impossible. The real can hurt so much.”

“I’ll free you,” Cyane says. She closes her eyes. “I promise.”

Persephone’s eyes narrow. “Cyane—”

The sun passes above the spring, and the glare of the sun on the water turns blinding, and Persephone can see the nymph no more.

In Laconia, near Mount Taygetus, Atreus’ wife Pelopia looks up at the sun. “So bright,” she says.

She trudges down the road. Her feet are bloody. It’s a long way from Mycenae, and she’s lost her sandals along the way. She comes to a clearing.

Helen sits against a tree. Her hair runs down the bark. She’s not yet the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s very young.

Helen opens her eyes.

“I wondered if you’d come,” Helen says.

Pelopia hesitates. “I want things to be different,” she says.

“Why?”

“Not all of us can be the children of gods and swans,” Pelopia says. “My father was Thyestes, now an exile. I went into Athena’s service, and on the night of a ceremony, a masked stranger caught and forced me and got a child on me. I took his sword as he lay sated, but found myself unable to kill—not him and not myself. So I fled. My uncle Atreus, who would kill me if he knew my parentage, thought me the daughter of another King, and took me to wife. When I bore the stranger’s child, he imagined it as his own. I had hoped to make some small brightness from this, but my son Aegisthus is as empty as the sky. His eyes are hollow. He cuts his own flesh with the sword I stole and gave to him. There is nothing I may do to save him. This is the world I live in. I want it to be different.”

Helen bites her lip. Then she reaches out a hand. She touches Pelopia’s elbow. “You’re like the sea,” she says.

“I went to the sea once,” Pelopia says. “I washed the blood off. And the dirt. And the tears. And all the foulness of mankind. And the sea stayed clean. But I’m not like that.”

Helen makes a sad face. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“When your father dies, go and stand before his grave and call to me. I’ll make you an immortal.”

At the Oracle of Delphi, Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus, meet their uncle Thyestes. They catch him and bind him and return home; and on one weary evening, Agamemnon, Meneleaus, Aegisthus, and Pelopia reach their home together. Atreus consults the entrails of a goat. He turns to Aegisthus and Pelopia. He says, “As Thyestes was Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’ to capture, he is yours to kill.”

“Ours?” Pelopia asks.

“Yours.”

“Come, mother,” Aegisthus says, and leads her down into the dark. There, he opens the door of Thyestes’ cell, and goes in. Thyestes slouches languidly against the wall, bound in irons. There’s a touch of fear in his face as Aegisthus enters; but it fades as he sees Pelopia, and dissolves entirely when Aegisthus draws his sword.

“I know that sword,” Thyestes says. He smiles lazily. “But how did you come by it?”

Aegisthus hesitates. Thyestes’ expression and his choice of topics confuses the boy. The execution has turned unexpectedly uncomfortable. “My mother,” he says. “She gave it to me.”

“Then,” says Thyestes, “this is the sword my daughter took from me, after I lay with her to conceive you; and you are my son, my grandson, and my destined instrument of vengeance, raised in my enemy’s house as his very own son. You will kill him for me,” continues Thyestes. “You will kill him for me, and set me on the throne, for this is the revenge promised me by the Oracle, and now I see you shall fulfill it.”

There is a silence. Pelopia’s face grows paler. Aegisthus’ eyes are blank and white.

“I should kill you,” Aegisthus says. “I should kill you thrice over. For Atreus, and Pelopia, and myself.”

“You’re my son,” Thyestes says.

The corner of Aegisthus’ mouth twitches. The sword wavers in his hands. Then he turns, and strikes the wall. The blade splits the stone, and water pours into the room like blood. Aegisthus beats his head upon the wall. “Cyane!” he cries. “Cyane!”

A woman rises from the water. She shivers at the cold air. She draws the water up from the ground. She wraps it around her. It’s like a long jacket. There are lumps under the back, like budding wings.

“You’re different,” he says.

“I made a promise that I couldn’t fulfill,” she says. “So I changed.”

“Into what?”

“Someone who could do anything,” she says. “Sometimes.” She smiles at him. “Thank you,” she adds. “I thought about it, when I watched Hades take her off, but I didn’t dare. Not until you came along, impertinently bringing me to life to fill your own emptiness and then asking the impossible.”

“Make it not true,” Aegisthus says. “Make him not my father.”

Cyane looks at Thyestes. She makes a helpful gesture. Then she smiles wryly at Aegisthus. “It didn’t work this time.”

“Oh.”

“Monster!” Pelopia shouts. She pulls the sword from the wall and lunges towards Thyestes, but Aegisthus grabs her arm, and pulls her back, and casts her against the wall, where she sits.

“Monster,” she says again, and stares at the sword. She runs it along the edges of her wrists.

Thyestes grins at her. Then he looks up at Aegisthus. “If she keeps bleeding on it like that, you can take it to Atreus and say it’s my blood. Then kill him with it later, by surprise! It’s like a family reunion, all that blood on one sword.”

“Why would I do that?” Aegisthus asks.

Cyane tilts her head to one side. “Because he can tell you the secret of the gods,” she says.

“What?” Aegisthus’ voice is hoarse.

“You asked me to give you power to command the gods,” Cyane says. “I can’t. But he can.”

Aegisthus hesitates.

Cyane kneels by Pelopia. “I had to tell him,” she says, apologetically. “I belong to him. Kind of. Because I was dead, and then he put his blood in the spring, and called me forth. But I can try to save your life. If you want me to.”

Aegisthus claims the sword, and walks to Thyestes, and strikes down the chains.

“Monster,” Pelopia mutters.

Aegisthus leaves the room, and Thyestes too, and they close and lock the door behind them.

“He tried to change,” Cyane says, clinically. “Thyestes tried a hundred plans. He tried a hundred ways not to do what he did to you. But all of them were too hard, so he gave up.”

“Save my life,” Pelopia says.

Cyane wraps her jacket around Pelopia’s wounds; and slowly, the bleeding stops.

“I’m going to stand at his grave one day,” Pelopia says. “And I’m going to call to Helen, and become a god.”

“What kind of god?”

“I’ll be like a nymph,” Pelopia says. “They’ll come. People will come, and try to catch me. Because if they catch me, their plans will succeed. If they can catch me, they can change their fate, and break the cycle of the world.”

“And will they catch you?”

“No,” Pelopia says. “I won’t let them. I can’t let them. Not again. I’ll be as evasive as the wind.”

Cyane leans back against the wall.

“That’s what drives them, you know,” Cyane says.

“What?”

“People like your son. They make gods. They have such emptiness in them, and can make such emptiness in others, that gods come to them in swarms. But they can’t ever be one. It’s what makes them monsters.”

“I’m not sorry for him,” Pelopia says.

“No,” Cyane admits. “Neither am I.”

“It’s his own decision,” Pelopia says. “As ours are ours. But I wish he hadn’t locked the door.”