Pelopia Visits Martin (1 of 1)

THE POSTMAN 1
1. Neither snow nor sleet
2. Nor heat of day
3. Nor gloom of night
4. Stays the postman
5. From his appointed round.

THE POSTMAN 2
1. Martin sends a letter.
2. The postman walks up to Pelopia.
3. “Delivery,” he says.
4. Pelopia is too far away.

THE POSTMAN 3
1. “Ma’am,” says the postman.
2. The postman is running.
3. He doesn’t get closer! She’s still too far away!
4. She is too far away. It is now very hot.

THE POSTMAN 4
1. “Ma’am!” cries the postman.
2. The postman runs faster.
3. He doesn’t get closer. She’s still too far away!
4. He doesn’t get closer. It is now very dark.

THE POSTMAN 5
1. “MA’AM!” yells the postman.
2. The postman runs faster.
3. The postman he stumbles off the edge of the world.
4. The postman he tumbles.
5. The postman he tumbles.
6. And as for Pelopia
7. She’s still too far away.

THE POSTMAN 6
4. “Great,” says the postman.
5. “This was not in my creed.”

PELOPIA VISITS MARTIN

It’s not because of the letter.

“I sent you a letter,” Martin tells her one day, and Pelopia just gives him this guilty hiccup of a look.

It’s not because of the letter that Evasive A is there.

And it’s not because of effort.

Martin’s tried a lot of things to change his fate and break the cycle of the world. He’s worked hard at it.

But he never tried to catch this angel; so that isn’t why she’s there.

It’s not because of effort, or because he’s of her blood—

Though he is, in a way, many times removed.

It’s just that sometimes when we’re working hard to make our own meanings in a Godless universe, grace walks through the door.

One day she’s just there.

The other angels have their invitations, but not Pelopia. She’s not there to watch the show.

She’s on the stage talking about long walks to Hell.

She’s back behind it pumping the levers of the chaos.

She’s in the lights, balancing the colors, tumbling end-over-end with the ladder and lights falling down and Sid and Jane yelling, “Catch her;”

And crying, of course:

“No one can catch me! I’m Evasive Angel!” as she lands hard on her side.

Being uncatchable hurts sometimes, like when you’re falling from a rafter or jumping into your own dear love’s arms.

And one day she asks Martin if he’s OK with things, with the fact that there she is and in theory the answer to all his problems—all anybody’s problems—only he’s not trying to catch her.

And he looks at a dial on the sound stage—

Next to a mirrored sheen, and set, in a moment of unexpected vulnerability, to 11—

and he says, very clearly, “I can see your boogers.”

If you forgot what to call them, you’d have to say ‘consolidated snot capsules.’ That’s just how awkward it would be!

Jane’s Father

Jane looks out the window. “It would be nice to have a father,” she says.

It starts to rain. Great drops of water fall on the flowers. The flowers are yellow, red, and green. They’re big and bright. They bow as each drop lands, then flick it off. Then they tremble in place.

Jane goes to Martin’s room. She knocks. She waits. She knocks. She waits. Then Martin touches her on the shoulder from behind. Jane jumps. “Gack!”

“I was out,” Martin says. “Doing stuff.”

He opens his door. He lets Jane in. “What is it?” he asks.

“I’d like a father,” she says.

Martin makes a face. “They track mud all over the place,” he says. “And they eat a lot.”

Jane pokes him.

Martin rolls his eyes. “Fine. On your head be it.” He thinks. Then he assembles ingredients. There’s a ceramic tooth and a needle and some hair and a couple of feathers and a hook and a little plush heart. He puts them in a blender and whirls them on high for a few minutes. He pours the results into a cup. Outside, the rain stops. The world starts to dry. “Drink,” Martin says.

Jane pulls herself up into a chair. “What is it?” she says, holding her hands out for the cup.

“It’s the property of having a father.”

“Oh!” Jane drinks it down. “So I have one now?”

Martin shrugs.

“Or will I have to look under things? Like, under the bed and under the dresser and out at the bus stop and under the rug and in the walls?”

Jane hops down from the chair.

Martin shrugs again. “He’s probably in the living room.”

Jane frowns. Then she grins. “Okay!”

Jane runs off to the living room. There’s a shape like a man there. It’s not very distinct.

“Hi, Dad!” she says. She hugs him. Her arms pass through him. It’s like heavy air.

“Jane,” he says. He sounds distracted.

“You’re a ghost! That’s very spooky of you.”

“You can’t have a father yet,” he says. “First you have to do things.”

He points at the wall. There’s a list posted. Jane walks over to it and reads it. Then she beams. “Martin thinks of everything!”

Jane takes her father’s hand. It doesn’t have surface tension, but she can pretend. She leads him out to the hopscotch court. She begins to hop.

“I had a father before,” she says, and hops.

“Did you?”

“He was a manticore. He stood taller than a house. He had three different stingers. Three!”

Jane’s father looks over his shoulder at his coattails. “Are you sure?”

“Not really,” Jane admits. She hops some more. “He might have been some kind of giant gibbering thing. With twelve spindly arms. Like Mom had! Or even longer. He could use them to scuttle around with. He might spin a giant web out of human tendons. That would be sickening, but also kind of conceptually interesting.”

Jane finishes with the hopscotch. She goes and sits on a bench. Sitting is the next important task.

“I don’t have twelve spindly arms,” Jane’s father observes.

“Well, yah,” Jane says. “You’re the new one.”

“You’re not fibbing, are you?”

“It’s not a fib,” Jane says. “It’s just that it’s always so hard to say. He could have been all over hooks and feathers. Like a gryphon, except sharp and pointy. And he could have screamed.”

Jane screams like a bird. Her father startles.

“Like that! As he swooped down to hug me with hooks. Then my skin would just tear off.”

The ghost tilts his head to one side. “Do you have any idea at all what he was actually like?”

Jane sighs. “I remember teeth,” she says. “I was told there were teeth. So I remember them.”

“Who told you that?”

Jane grins. “Monsters. But I figure they would know.” She gets up and begins to spin. Spinning is the third thing on her list!

“He was probably just a guy,” the ghost comments. “You know. A person. No teeth, no spindly legs, no hooks, no stingers.”

Jane gets a little dizzy. She sits down again. She thinks for a long time. “Yeah,” she says. “He probably was.”

Jane bites her lip. “Thanks.”

After a while, Jane looks over, but the ghost is gone.

Wuxia Mumakil1

In Middle-Earth, there is no union so sacred as the bond of friendship between a dwarf and an elf. When Legolas died, Elrond assumed his responsibility for Gimli. Yet the two of them could never be friends. To befriend Gimli would dishonor Legolas’ memory; and however much Elrond longed to share an ale and a story with the dwarf, he could not. Separated by the shadow of the dead, the two were doomed to live forever apart.

It came to pass that both of them met an oliphant, or mumak, who possessed great potential. It was forbidden to teach the secret arts of the elves to the mumakil—yet Elrond and Gimli wished to try. They feared if they did not that ambition and lost potential would taint the mumak’s soul and make it a poisoned elephant.

To assert its independence, the mumak stole the mystic howdah called the Green Destiny, filled with the dark riders of Sauron. It carried the howdah away to the distant forest, tall and green, where Elrond confronted it at last.

1 requires familiarity with the Lord of the Rings and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Great green trees rise on every side. Their branches rustle and sway in the wind.

Elrond looks grimly at the mumak. It looks back. It’s a giant elephant. It has four tusks. Its riders serve Sauron.

“Your martial spirit is great,” Elrond says, “but your anger poisons your spirit. Become my apprentice. I will teach you the way of the elves.”

The mumak charges. Like a feather, Elrond drifts upwards into the branches. The mumak snorts and jumps after him. It lands lightly on a branch.

Elrond’s branch sways. Swoosh. Swoosh.

Elrond fires an arrow. Swoosh. Swoosh.

The mumak tosses its head. Then it charges. It tries to trample Elrond. Elrond darts aside. The mumak stands at the end of the branch. The branch sways. Swoosh. Swoosh.

Elrond fires five times. The recoil sends his branch swooping away. The mumak trumpets uneasily as the arrows pepper its flesh. Swoosh. Swoosh.

The mumak charges Elrond and attempts to gore him. He catches hold of its tusk. His eyes closed, he lets it carry him backwards. Then, as the mumak stops, Elrond steps off onto a nearby branch. The wind blows him and the mumak apart. Swoosh. Swoosh.

The mumak wiggles its head. Elrond, who speaks the secret language of giant martial arts elephants, understands its meaning. The mumak is saying: “If you can defeat me in five moves, I will become your apprentice.”

Their branches sway together. The mumak takes a step; Elrond takes another. The mumak gores at him. Elrond steps aside. Then Elrond takes the fifth move, and suddenly the mumak no longer has its howdah. Elrond balances it in his hand. The riders look perturbed.

The mumak trumpets: “You cheated.”

Elrond sighs, and tosses the howdah into a pool deep below.

The mumak hesitates. Then it cries: “My riders! They’ll all die!”

“A true master needs no howdah,” Elrond says. “The desire for excellence is the only monkey on his back.”

The mumak dives off the branch towards the water below.

“I told you that you couldn’t save it,” growls Gimli.

Elrond looks at Gimli. There is a sorrow in his gaze that no words can express.

Uncomfortable, the dwarf looks down. “Well, you can’t,” he grumbles. “Some things can’t be fixed.”

“Ah,” murmurs Elrond. “This is a world of 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.”

Thyestes (III/IV)

It is 1223 years before the common era. The sun shines white, then later red. The golden lamb plays upon a hill.

The lamb gambols.

Thyestes makes a wreath of flowers. He sets it on a stone beside him; and Artemis is there.

“She’s pretty,” Thyestes says. “The lamb.”

“Yes,” Artemis says.

“Golden.”

“Yes.”

“She was supposed to have been sacrificed to you,” Thyestes says. “A long time ago. But instead, my brother chose to keep her.”

“I suppose he thought that I’d been deceived.”

“Later, we wagered a kingdom on it—on whomever could provide the best lamb. And I seduced his wife, and she brought it to me, and when I and my brother brought forth our herds, mine had the superior sheep.”

Artemis turns over her hand. The gesture indicates that these things happen.

“But Zeus wanted my brother to be King,” Thyestes says. “So he became King anyway. And I left. And one day he invited me back.”

“I’m sorry,” Artemis says.

“It wasn’t your affair,” he says.

“No.”

“He killed my sons,” Thyestes says. “To punish me for sleeping with his wife. He killed my sons, and he fed them to me, and I didn’t know what I’d eaten until he brought out their cooked heads.”

Artemis reflects on this for a bit. “It happens,” she says. “If someone did that to me, I’d turn them into a badger. But I have divine powers and a temper.”

“I could get revenge,” Thyestes says.

“Ah,” Artemis says.

“I asked an Oracle how. She said to lay with my daughter Pelopia, and sire a son who would avenge me.”

There’s quiet for a bit. The lamb plays in the sun. “You can’t imagine,” Artemis says, “that I’d help you.”

“No,” Thyestes agrees.

“Then what?”

“My house is cursed,” he says. “Cursed for Tantalus. Cursed for Pelops. Cursed for me, for all I know.”

“Ah,” she says.

“Do I have a choice?”

She looks him over.

“If you ask me to,” she says, “I will turn you into a squirrel. Or a woman. Or an arrow for my bow. Or a wave out in the sea.”

“These are hard options,” he says.

“It is these,” she says, “or become a monster.”

“Like the Nemean Lion,” he says.

A long moment passes. “No,” she says. “The word is ill-suited to Echidna’s brood. In time, I think, it would be your kind that would bear the name.”

“You could threaten me,” he says. “It would make it easier. To take the hard road.”

“I can’t. Your house is cursed.”

“Oh.”

There’s a silence.

“Tell me of monsters,” he says.

“If you do this,” she says, “then one day your line shall rule even over the gods; but you shall be as empty as your victims. Your heirs will be born in horror, and raised in horror, and grow into monsters that work horror of their own; and then, like the serpent biting its own tail, that horror shall come back to them at the end, and they shall die in sickness and in pain, saying, ‘This is not fair.’”

“And how does this compare to squirrels?”

Artemis rises. Her aspect becomes terrible.

“Make up your mind,” she says.

After a while, she goes away, and the wreath sifts to the ground, and the lamb gambols against the setting sun.

Pelops (II/IV)

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?”

“Pardon?”

“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.

Time passes.

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.

“Inconceivable!”

“Pardon?”

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!”

“Father!”

“Well?”

“There wouldn’t’ve been room in the eel,” she says. “It wasn’t like getting eaten by the kraken, you know.”

“Oh.”

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.”

“And drowned.”

“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.”

“Oh?”

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.”

Pelops shrugs.

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.”

Tantalus (I/IV)

The sky is grey.

Hades seizes Persephone. He takes her to the depths of the Underworld. She cries out to her mother, Demeter. Demeter cannot save her. She visits a dead oracle. She asks him for his words.

“It is a time of myths,” the oracle says. “The children of Echidna, mother of monsters, wander this world. The gods rule in Olympus. And you are here.”

“How may I be free?” she asks.

“Drink the blood of a man with the secret of the gods,” the oracle answers.

Persephone laughs bitterly.

“Later this year,” the oracle says, “someone will learn that secret. He will rig three gods to explode. He will blow the top off of Mount Sipylus. His line will change the world. It is his blood that you need.”

Persephone returns to her black throne and waits.

It is 1315 years before the common era.

The sea is grey.

Tantalus and Pandareus stand in the courtyard of Zeus’ temple at Crete. “It’s all grey,” Pandareus says. “This is a grey land.”

“Whistle,” Tantalus says.

Pandareus shrugs and whistles. A dog runs up. It’s a shining clockwork dog, made entirely of gold and jewels. Its black sapphire eyes sparkle in the light. Its black sapphire nose is wet. It wriggles its tail and barks happily at Tantalus and Pandareus. Pandareus can’t help but laugh. “What is it?” he asks.

“Hephaestus made it,” Tantalus says. “Its name is Brotos. I figure, if we can steal it, we can figure out the secret of the gods.”

“It must be hard to steal,” Pandareus says.

Tantalus looks at the sky. “There’s a cyclone coming,” he says. “Try picking it up.”

Pandareus scoops the dog up. It wriggles in his arms. He looks up. “It’s coming closer,” he says.

“Quick,” Tantalus says. “Let’s get out of here.”

The cyclone looms closer. The two rush out of the temple and head for their boat. The dog wriggles more and jumps out of Pandareus’ arms. It runs back towards the storm.

“Fudge,” Pandareus swears, and charges after the dog. Tantalus follows. The cyclone stoops. Just as Pandareus’ arms wrap around the dog, it whirls all three upwards into the sky.

“This won’t do,” Tantalus says. He makes a ruthless decision. He struggles through the storm. He has a long wicked knife in one hand. He plunges it into Pandareus’ stomach. He takes the dog. It licks his face. He shoves Pandareus hard. His friend bursts through the cyclone’s edge and falls, broken and wounded, to the earth below.

Tantalus smiles down at the dog. “We have rather a queer adventure ahead of us, Brotos,” he says. “You’ll have to be very quiet.”

The dog wags its tail, almost as if it understands. Tantalus stows the dog in a large sack and fills the rest of the sack with straw.

“Nothing further to be done,” he says. He curls up in the cyclone. He goes to sleep. For six long hours, he dreams. Then a jarring shock wakes him. He rises to his feet, swings the sack over his shoulder, and looks around. The cyclone has deposited Tantalus in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty. He sees lovely patches of greensward in all directions, and banks of gorgeous flowers, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage. A little way off, he sees the banquet table of the gods.

“As I suspected,” he says. “I shall have nectar and ambrosia today.”

He goes before the gods and bows low. Zeus turns to him and rumbles, “Be welcome here, Tantalus; for I have not seen you in some time.”

“You send an unusual chariot.”

Zeus shrugs. Then his eyes narrow. “My son,” he says, “My golden dog, that guarded the temple at Crete—do you know what has happened to it?”

Tantalus’ sack wriggles and barks.

“Stolen,” Tantalus says gravely.

Zeus regards the sack. He raises a white eyebrow.

“It is Pandareus,” Tantalus adds, “of Merops’ family. I witnessed the theft with my own eyes. It’s a tragedy when a good man goes bad like that.”

“Such men earn the wrath of the gods,” Zeus says lightly. “But come, what of the dog then?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Tantalus says. The sack barks.

Hera nudges Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, who sidles up beside Zeus’s throne. “The dog,” she whispers. “It’s in the sack. I’ll cut it open. Then justice will demand that we smite him.”

Zeus raises a hand, forestalling her. He looks down at his son Tantalus. Tantalus gives him a cocksure grin.

“It would be wrong,” Zeus says finally, “to trouble the person or property of my son while he attends our feasts. No. As long as he does not act against the gods, he is sacrosanct.”

Tantalus leers at Nemesis. “You shouldn’t look so offended,” he says. “It makes your eyes bulge out like twin moons!”

Nemesis glares at him.

“It’s cute,” Tantalus assures her. “Like an angry child pouting over stolen candy.”

Nemesis looks to Zeus. “How many of these insults must I bear?”

Zeus meditates on this. “Fifteen,” he says.

“Hey!” Tantalus and Nemesis say together. Nemesis thinks for a moment, and then gestures to Tantalus, yielding the floor.

“How come a vengeance-obsessed tramp like her gets to override your promise of protection?”

“It is her special power,” Zeus says. “If the provocation is sufficient, she need not abide by the rules of the world.”

“Fifteen is an awful lot,” Nemesis says.

“He’s not very good at insulting people,” Zeus says.

“Ha!” Tantalus says. He glares at Nemesis. “Your nose is too long. Your eyes are too bright. Your hair is too short. Your feet are too big. Your clothes have no taste. I wouldn’t kiss you even if you were the only girl in the world. Your knees are knobbly. Your teeth are crooked. You smell funny. And everyone sleeps under your mother.”

“Thirteen,” says Nemesis coldly.

“Twelve,” Zeus corrects.

Nemesis looks at him.

“Your mother is Night,” Zeus says. “Everyone does sleep under her.”

Tantalus frowns. “Oh,” he says, mildly deflated. “I guess I’ll save two for later.”

“Oh, take three,” Nemesis says casually.

“I wouldn’t dream of insulting such a charming and wonderful goddess,” Tantalus says, and wanders off to mingle.

“If it helps,” Zeus says, after a moment, “I think you look hot.”

“Gee. Thanks, Dad.”

Tantalus finds a god suspended on a pole.

“Good day,” says Anakopto.

“Did you speak?” Tantalus asks, looking up.

“Certainly,” Anakopto says. “How do you do?”

“I’m pretty well,” Tantalus says. “You’re a god on a pole. Are you Priapus?”

“No,” Anakopto says. “I’m the god of scarecrows. They put me up on this pole to keep birds and such away from the gods’ feast.”

“That’s too bad,” Tantalus says. “It’s much more fun down here.”

“The pole is stuck up my back,” Anakopto explains. “So I can’t get down. But if you lift me off the pole, I’ll cut you in for a share of the coolest plan ever.”

Tantalus snags a glass of nectar from a passing waiter. “Well,” he says, swirling the nectar around and then gulping it down, “it can’t hurt, can it?” He reaches up with both arms and lifts Anakopto off the pole.

“Thank you,” Anakopto says. “We’ll need to find the other two. Then I’ll explain.”

Anakopto looks around. “There he is!” he says, and waves.

“Who?” Tantalus says.

“Over there. Kyrievo. The tin-plated god. Hephaestus forged him, you know.”

“He’s not moving.”

“Oh.” Anakopto laughs. “Silly me. I’d told him to stop.” He leads Tantalus over to Kyrievo and snaps his fingers. Instantly, Kyrievo snaps to life. He smiles at Tantalus, whose heart beats faster.

“I didn’t know you could have a metal god,” Tantalus admits.

“He didn’t start metal,” Anakopto says airily. “But Aphrodite doesn’t like him much. So now and again, she chops off one of his bits. Hephaestus replaces them, for politeness’ sake, and now he’s pretty much all tin. And, oh, there’s Arpazo. Hiding from the crowd as usual.”

Tantalus waves Arpazo over. The god, dressed in a lion skin, slouches closer.

“I’ve decided,” Anakopto declares airily, “to bring this fine mortal king in on our plans.”

“Recruiting was supposed to be my job,” Arpazo says sulkily, “but since I’m too afraid to challenge you, I suppose it will have to stand.”

“What is this plan?” Tantalus asks.

“The gods used to be more powerful and terrible than they are,” Anakopto says. “But the Titanomachy changed all of that.”

“Oh?”

Anakopto nods. “The end of human sacrifice,” he says, “was the beginning of time; and with time, entropy; and with entropy, the decay of power.”

“You wish people sacrificed to you?” Tantalus asks.

“No.” Anakopto shakes his head firmly. “I am a scarecrow god. Stuffed with straw! If I filled myself with power, I’m quite sure I’d slosh. I might even explode! No. Our target is Demeter. Should she taste of the richest meat, she may become the Great Goddess again. Hades has stolen her daughter Persephone, and her mind is clouded by sorrow; now is our chance to strike! But we need a human to feed her.”

“I see,” Tantalus says.

“Not you,” Kyrievo interrupts, hastily. “You’re under Zeus’ protection. That’s solid! But if you help us out, then we could help you out.”

“You’ve stolen my heart,” Tantalus says, to the tin-plated god. “So I can’t help but assist you.”

Arpazo pouts. “You’ve stolen his heart?”

“You can’t very well steal his courage,” Anakopto says. “Then he wouldn’t stand against the gods.”

“I wanted to steal something,” Arpazo says.

“Then,” says Tantalus, “you must steal the schedule book for the gods. I’ll write in a feast at my own home, and we’ll make the sacrifice to Demeter there.”

“It’s frightening to play tricks on the gods!” Arpazo says. “Can’t I steal a little of your courage?”

In the sack, Brotos begins barking furiously. Gods around them turn to look. Arpazo flushes.

“All right, all right,” Arpazo says. He lowers himself to the ground, and the lion skin settles around him. “I’ll go! Don’t make a fuss.” He slinks off.

“You have a dog in a sack,” Kyrievo says.

“Yes,” Tantalus says.

Some distance away, at the base of Zeus’ throne, Nemesis spins to face her king. “He just admitted it,” she says. “I heard him admit that there’s a dog in that sack.”

“Sacking a dog is not a crime,” Zeus points out. “Although it’s deucedly odd.”

“I’ll keep listening,” Nemesis says. She steeples her fingers. “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your dog, too.”

Arpazo slinks back to rejoin the others. He has the schedule book of the gods in his mouth. He spits it at Tantalus’ feet. Tantalus writes in a new appointment.

“Remember,” Kyrievo says, “that the gods need good entertainment. You can’t just give her somebody’s head on a platter and call it a meal.”

“Paphlagonia is rich,” Tantalus says. “We’ll make a feast to remember.”

Hearing this, Nemesis turns to Zeus. She hesitates a long moment. “It seems unfortunate,” she says. “I wonder if there are any circumstances under which you would let me punish this man.”

“I am loath to do so,” Zeus says. “He is my son. If he should transgress too far, then I cannot protect him. But it is my nature to show him a certain consideration.”

Nemesis thinks for a long moment. “There are three gods,” she says, “who intend to feed Demeter human flesh. I assume I may punish them as I like?”

Zeus grins. “I hope you’re not thinking of shodding Tantalus in iron and using him to beat them with.”

“Wow,” Nemesis admits. “You’re better at this than I am. But no.”

“Nor dropping him repeatedly on their heads from a great height?”

“I’ll be good,” Nemesis agrees.

“Then proceed.”

A few days later, the party breaks up. Anakopto, Kyrievo, Arpazo, and Tantalus proceed towards Tantalus’ kingdom. After a bit, Tantalus lets Brotos out of the sack, and the small golden dog frolicks all around them.

“What do you learn from the dog?” Anakopto asks.

“I’m not sure,” Tantalus says. “Perhaps I am learning how to change the nature of gods.”

“An admirable wisdom,” says Anakopto, “although one I already possess.”

He points his finger at Kyrievo. “Stop.”

Kyrievo, caught midstride, falls over.

“It’s like he’s rusting,” Anakopto says, cheerfully. Kyrievo glares at Anakopto. After a moment, Anakopto shrugs, and Kyrievo struggles to his feet.

“I crushed a beetle,” Kyrievo says.

“Was it a magic beetle?”

“It could have granted Tantalus three wishes, and made his house prosper forever.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Anakopto agrees.

“Do I have many such beetles in my kingdom?” Tantalus asks.

“They’re elusive,” Anakopto says.

Tantalus looks at Brotos. “If you see one,” he says, “fetch it for me.” Brotos wags its tail, almost as if it understands.

They reach Tantalus’ castle. He shows the gods their guest quarters. He takes them to meet his son, Pelops, and his daughter, Niobe. Then he flips a coin.

“Pelops,” he says, “I am going to cook you and feed you to Demeter.”

“That’s horrible and perverted, Dad.”

“Pelops!” Tantalus says. “I’m ashamed of you. It’s rude to refuse your guests anything.”

Pelops eyes Tantalus. “And it’s ruder to feed them people stew.”

“Granted,” Tantalus admits. “Still, into the pot with you.”

Pelops sulks. He walks with the others down to the kitchen and gets in the stew pots. “I hate you,” he says. “You’re ruining my life.”

Tantalus turns on the fires.

“I could remove his mind,” Anakopto says. “And keep it in my hands. Then he might be restored.”

“I could remove his heart,” Kyrievo adds.

“And I his courage,” says Arpazo.

“If you took his courage,” Tantalus points out, “he probably wouldn’t sit in that pot while I cook him, even if it is his father’s orders.”

“That’s true,” Arpazo says unhappily. But Kyrievo and Anakopto remove Pelops’ mind and heart, after which he sits calmly in the building stew.

“It pains me to do this, son,” Tantalus admits. Then he turns, and gathers Brotos in his arms, and goes to prepare his house for the feast of the gods.

A woman skulks out from between two pillars. She wears a mask.

“Who are you?” he says.

“You may call me Galatea,” she says, “the good witch of Pontus and Lydia.”

The sweet tones of her voice rouse his admiration, and he smiles to her. “Then speak your message, good witch.”

“Four have earned the gods’ wrath,” she says, “and all four known to you, for these are Anakopto, Arpazo, Kyrievo, and Pandareus.”

“Yes,” he says, inclining his head. “The gods who plan a wicked feast, and the thief who stole the gods’ golden dog.”

Brotos barks. Tantalus can hear the sound of gritting teeth under the mask.

“Yes,” says the masked woman. “The gods who plan a wicked feast, and the thief Pandareus who stole the gods’ golden dog.”

“But surely,” Tantalus says, “the gods have ample instruments of vengeance. There are the kindly ones, and Nemesis, and the thunderbolt.”

“The kindly ones have their own calling,” says the woman, “and the thunderbolt is for Zeus’ use alone. As for Nemesis, . . . perhaps she is in disfavor.”

“Aha,” says Tantalus. He takes a few steps closer to the woman. He’s got a bit of a swagger. “She’s earned it, you know. She’s too dumb to see my good qualities.”

“Hm,” says the woman. She touches a graceful, delicate hand to his chin. “I can’t imagine how that could be true.”

Tantalus grins crookedly at her.

“Still,” she says, “It is now for you to carry out their punishment.”

“Me?”

The woman nods. She reaches out to a nearby pedestal, and a golden cap forms on it. “You may borrow this cap,” she says. “It summons winged monkeys. I also give you a prophecy: that Pandareus shall come to this feast, and when he runs from here, the thief shall fall under the shadow of mount Sipylus.”

“Winged monkeys?”

“They will do you three services of your choice.”

“Ah,” Tantalus says dubiously.

“If you cannot find a use for winged monkeys,” the woman says, “you aren’t much of a king.”

“Hm,” Tantalus says, and accepts the cap. He turns it over in his hands, looking at it, and then looks up at the woman. “If I do this,” he says, “it is acting against the gods; and that would break my protection.”

“Do this task,” the woman promises, “and you shall suffer no retribution for acts against the gods.”

“But—”

She touches his lips. “Shh. An you succeed, we shall see one another again.” With that, the woman stepped back into the pillars and vanishes.

“Witches are strange,” Tantalus says. Brotos barks. “Yet . . .”

Tantalus takes Brotos back to his lab. As his son slowly dissolves into Pelops stew in the kitchens below, Tantalus carves into the dog. When it sits in pieces around him, the golden throat still on occasion groaning, whining, and wailing, Tantalus stares into its heart.

“Ah,” he says. “This is the secret of the gods.”

He walks to the kitchen. He pours four glasses of wine. He takes out a long wicked knife. He cuts his hand. Blood drips into the wine. He stirs Pelops and adds some onions to his son. Then he gathers the wine on a tray and takes it in search of the gods. He finds them with Niobe. Arpazo is bragging about his enormous accomplishments. Kyrievo polishes his shirt. Anakopto is staring out the window, lost in thought. Niobe looks at him with wide eyes.

“Dad!” she exclaims. She hugs him. She leans up. She whispers in his ear, “Thanks. I hate these guys.”

“You won’t stay?” he asks. “Have some wine?”

There’s a flash of panic in her eyes. Then she counts the glasses and smiles. “I couldn’t, Dad. Besides, gods bore me to tears.”

Arpazo looks up, stricken. Kyrievo looks shocked. Niobe dives through the door and is gone.

“Hm?” Anakopto asks, turning.

“You could have told her to stop,” Arpazo says. “You never use that power when it’s a good time.”

“It’s mostly for crows,” Anakopto says.

“Wine?” Tantalus offers. They drink. They talk. Then Tantalus puts the golden cap on his head and summons winged monkeys. The winged monkeys snatch the gods and fly them away to a cave on Mount Sipylus. Then they seal the entrance.

“This sucks,” Arpazo says.

“I feel an explosive power rising in me,” Anakopto says. “Perhaps we can break free.” He points at the stone sealing the entrance. “Stop!”

“Helpful,” Kyrievo says. “That’s really helpful.”

At Tantalus’ castle, the gods begin to arrive.

“Nice cap,” Hermes says to Tantalus. He’s also wearing a golden cap, but his has wings.

“Mine summons winged monkeys,” Tantalus says.

Hermes laughs genially. “I can fly and turn invisible,” he says. “Plus, I’m the patron of thieves.”

“Okay,” Tantalus admits. “Yours is better.”

Hermes tweaks Tantalus’ nose and then takes his seat. Tantalus continues greeting guests.

“Great Goddess,” he says to Demeter. “Cybele.”

Demeter, clad in mourning gear, looks at him blankly. Then she shrugs and shuffles to her seat.

“Dad!” he says.

Zeus pats Tantalus on the shoulder. “Nice place,” he says. “Good kingdom.”

Upstairs, Brotos tries to bark. He can’t. He’s disassembled.

“Thanks, Dad,” Tantalus says.

“It better be a good feast, though,” Zeus says. “I mean, I could be having ambrosia and nectar right now.”

“You’ll find it very surprising,” Tantalus assures him.

Zeus and Hera go to their seats. “What did he mean by that?” Zeus wonders.

“Smells like Pelops,” Hera says, sniffing the air.

“How awkward,” Zeus says.

“We’re not going to eat your grandchild.”

“Well, no.” Zeus thinks. “We could pretend to eat. To be polite. But actually feed it to Cerberus under the table.”

“No,” Hera says, firmly.

Tantalus brings out plates of fruit and bread and nuts. The gods begin their feast. The food is not so good as it might be, but not so bad as it might be, either. Then Tantalus rises to announce the main course.

“Here it comes,” Zeus says, sadly. “Still, when he brings his son out, we’ll break the news to him gently.”

The pots of stew come out to the table. Zeus clears his throat.

The doors of the room burst open. Pandareus stands behind them. He stares grimly at Tantalus. His stomach is scarred. His left arm is broken. He shouts. “You stole my dog!”

“He does that,” Nemesis confides.

“And stabbed me!”

“Friend,” Tantalus says, “This is hardly the time.”

Pandareus advances. He has a sword in his hand. “I’ll end you, you bastard!” He leaps onto the table. His foot knocks over a pot of Pelops, and stew spills over Demeter’s plate. He blurs in a lunge, and Tantalus tumbles backwards to avoid his sword.

“He wasn’t as fast as the wind,” notes Eurus.

“Or the thunderbolt,” Zeus confides.

“But still, pretty fast,” Eurus agrees.

“Oh, yes. He’s a hero of some sort.”

“At least there’s entertainment.”

Tantalus screams as the sword blurs at him again and again. He’s not armed. He didn’t expect to need weapons at a feast of the gods. Pandareus’ blade sticks clean through Tantalus’ stone chair, which explodes. Tantalus scrambles backwards, thinking frantically. “You were supposed to run!”

“Run?” Pandareus pauses to sneer. “You pathetic milksop of a king, I’d have to be a rabbit to be afraid of you.”

“He does have a point, Daddy,” Niobe comments. “He’s better than you are.”

Tantalus grasps at the golden cap. “I summon the winged monkeys!”

“See?” Hermes says. “Pretty good cap. Still, not as good as mine.”

The air above the banquet hall fills with a storm of winged monkeys. They swirl around. Pandareus slashes at them, once, twice, thrice, and six monkeys fall. There are hundreds more.

“He’s heroic,” Zeus notes again. “Do you think they’ll tell stories about this?”

“The winged monkeys don’t seem very popular with the poets,” Echidna answers.

“Hm,” Zeus rumbles. “I suppose they do lack a certain dignity.”

“Now, the Nemean Lion,” Echidna says. “There’s a monster.”

Pandareus raises his sword high above his head, and his sword energy flings the winged monkeys in all directions. Hermes picks one out of his fruit plate, shakes it off unhappily, and tosses it back into the storm. Absently, Demeter picks a few bites of Pelops meat from the mess on her plate and chews on them.

Tantalus crawls over to the king of the winged monkeys. “Fetch me Arpazo,” he says. The winged monkeys stream out of the room. Pandareus stands ready to resume the attack. A few minutes pass. Then the monkeys return. They drop off Arpazo and leave.

“What’s this?” Pandareus says. He stares at Arpazo, who leans close to the ground, lion skin draped over him. “Is this the Nemean Lion?”

Echidna sighs.

Tantalus points at Pandareus. “Steal his courage, Arpazo, and I’ll let you go free!”

Arpazo considers. Then he looks at Pandareus. He beckons. Pandareus carefully slinks closer to him. Arpazo whispers a secret in Pandareus’ ear. Pandareus’ eyes widen. He bolts from the room.

“I’m free!” Arpazo says.

“I summon the winged monkeys!”

“What?” Arpazo asks.

The winged monkeys hesitantly flutter back into the room.

“For my third service,” Tantalus says, “I ask you to return Arpazo to the cave.”

They whisk him away.

“Now,” Tantalus says, “back to the feast.” Then he looks solicitous. “Demeter,” he says. “Cybele. You do not seem well.”

Zeus stands, shocked. “She has eaten of Pelops.”

“And my blood as well; for I’ve added it to the stew.”

Zeus scowls. “What foul deed is this?”

“It’s a secret I’ve learned,” Tantalus says, “from your golden dog.”

Nemesis rises. “He admits to stealing it!”

“Now, Nemesis,” he says. “Remember: I may not be punished for any act save those directly against the gods.”

Nemesis’ eyes narrow. “And the deeds of the night do not qualify?”

Tantalus shrugs. “I also may not be punished for acting directly against the gods. Some idiotic deity sent a promise to this effect; and, I assure you, I have thoroughly punished Arpazo, Anakopto, Kyrievo, and Pandareus. I’ve rigged the three gods to explode.”

“Is this true?” Zeus asks, pained. “Someone has promised him this?”

Tantalus leers at Nemesis. “So now you’re just an ineffectual piece of trash.”

“Fifteen,” Nemesis says.

Tantalus hesitates. He counts. He counts on his fingers. He counts twice. “Twelve, before,” he says. “And that one. Thirteen.”

“‘She’s too dumb to see my good qualities,’” quotes Nemesis.

“You heard that?” Tantalus runs his hand through his hair. “Well, fourteen, then.”

“‘Some idiotic deity,’” quotes Nemesis.

Zeus raises an eyebrow at Nemesis. “Have you been putting on a mask and telling people you’re a good witch again?”

Nemesis blushes and looks down. “It makes them summon monkeys.”

Tantalus backs away. “Father,” he says, “you really shouldn’t let her break the rules, just because it’s her special power.”

Nemesis looks up. “Run.”

Tantalus runs. He runs for hours. He falls under the shadow of Mount Sipylus.

“What happens now?” Zeus asks.

Nemesis listens. There’s a roar. “That’s an explosion,” she says. “Unstable gods. The top of the mountain is flying off. It’s going to land on him, if you so will it, and drive him down into the Underworld and death.”

Zeus nods.

“And that,” she says, “is the sound of winged monkeys, disturbed by the explosion, flying out of the mountain.”

Niobe stares out the window at the topless mountain. “It’s really more of a butte.”

The mountain drives Tantalus into the darkness of the Underworld. In time, Persephone comes for him.

“You fed mother human flesh,” she says.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what that does?”

“No,” he says.

“You fed her your blood,” Persephone says. “Do you know what that does?”

“It made her mine.”

“You could feed me your blood,” Persephone says, “and free me from this place.”

“I have no blood,” Tantalus says. “I am dead.”

“Then I shall go,” Persephone says, “and sit upon my throne, and I shall dream of home.”

The Sickness

SIZZLE 1
1. Pain eats at the earth.
2. Natural weak spots collapse under the pain.
3. This forms a razor-edged chasm.
4. Pain pours into the chasm.
5. Pain reaches the molten core of the earth.
6. Sizzle.
7. The pits convert pain to thermodynamic energy.
8. They also eat suffering.

ECOSYSTEM 1
1. The ecosystem requires pain pits.
2. Otherwise, the animals wouldn’t be able to live with themselves.
3. They kill and eat one another, you know.

SIZZLE 2
1. Og suffers.
2. Ba suffers.
3. Og and Ba go to the pain pits.
4. Sizzle.
5. Now Og and Ba are happy.

THE SICKNESS 1
1. People forget.
2. It happens.
3. People forget the glasses on their heads.
4. People forget the pencil behind their ear.
5. People forget basic physics.
6. People forget to be people.
7. It happens.
8. People forget.

TIME PASSES
1. Minutes pass.
2. Then years.
3. Then centuries.

BUDDHA 1
1. Buddha achieves enlightenment.
2. “Dukkha,” Buddha says.
3. “Yes?” Dukkha answers.
4. “No,” Buddha explains. “I was more in the way of stating a universal truth.”
5. “Ah,” Dukkha says.
6. They laugh and laugh.
7. Then they fight!

BUDDHA 2
1. Ananda asks Buddha, “What is dukkha?”
2. “We cannot rid ourselves of suffering,” Buddha says.
3. “We are chained to the world by our ignorance and desire.”
4. “To live is to suffer.”
5. “Freedom is death.”
6. “This is enlightenment.”
7. “Oh,” Ananda says.
8. He sounds disappointed.
9. He was hoping it was some sort of superpower.

JESUS 1
1. Jesus is born.
2. He sees a world of pain.
3. He shoulders that pain.
4. He finds an answer.
5. He takes it onto himself.
6. He dies in agony.

JESUS 2
1. A thief asks Jesus, “Why?”
2. “I will suffer,” Jesus says,
3. “Or they will suffer.”
4. “I chose myself.”

THE MONSTER 1
1. The monster would say,
2. “That’s a stupid decision.”
3. Then he’d adjust his tie.
4. The monster laughs at God.

THE SICKNESS 2
1. Somewhere along the way, people forgot.
2. So now they deny the pain.
3. Or they endure it.
4. Or they take it on themselves.
5. Or they put it on others.
6. And they’ve never heard of the pain pits.
7. And the pain pits are lonely.

RICHARD THORNTON 1
1. Richard Thornton hikes through the woods.
2. The ground gives way.
3. He rolls down cliffs like razors.
4. He catches himself on a ledge.
5. “Ow,” he says.
6. But it doesn’t hurt.

JANET MAYSEN 1
1. Janet Maysen walks through the city.
2. The street gives way.
3. She falls down cliffs like razors.
4. She plunges into the core of the earth.
5. “This should hurt,” she says.
6. But it doesn’t.

THE SICKNESS 3
1. “But isn’t it wrong?” says Janet Maysen.
2. “Isn’t it wrong?” asks Richard Thornton.
3. “I mean,” they say,
4. “There’s so much wrong in the world.”
5. “Shouldn’t someone have to hurt?”

Stones Tell

Once upon a time, there was a country in the west. A powerful and terrible King ruled there, but he had no heir. He spent some years brooding. Then he journeyed to the peak of the tallest mountain in his realm. He called forth a maiden from the stones and slept with her. From the mountain he took his heir. He named her Parvati, and he raised her in his palace. For the twenty long years that followed, she did not speak.

“Let it be known,” said the King, “that he whom she speaks to first shall claim her hand; and her body; and be King-Consort of this realm when I am dead.”

They came from the four corners of the world and besieged her: the princes, the troubadours, the lovers, and the rogues. She found no peace. Whichsoever direction she did turn, another man presented himself, and with cunning and sweetness sought to startle a sound or phrase from her lips. This continued for two years. Then Mr. Schiff came, a scholar petitioning the King. He did not hunt her, nor praise her, nor so much as glance her way; but when she saw him, she pointed a long finger, and she said his name.

“Ah,” says the King.

Mr. Schiff looks up. “Milady,” he said, “we are not acquainted; but I would happily speak to you anon.”

“This is the Lady Parvati,” says the King.

“Ah,” says Mr. Schiff.

“Tell me,” says the King, “what manner of man are you?”

“I am a scholar,” Mr. Schiff says. “I study the stones, and seek from them an understanding of the history of our world.”

“Can stones tell such things?”

Mr. Schiff nods. “They are the ages of the world laid bare.”

The King tosses his crown down to the table, and gestures towards it. Mr. Schiff hesitantly approaches.

“The stone in the middle,” says the King. “It is as old as the land. Speak to me of this kingdom’s history.”

“Six thousand and seven years ago,” Mr. Schiff says, “your hand moved upon the world and split the sky from the stone. You saw this gem. You plucked it into the sky. You set it in your crown. It has spent the years since in your company.”

The King gives him a raven’s stare.

“It’s observable fact,” Mr. Schiff says. “Stones tell.”

The King leans back. “And have you been to other realms, Mr. Schiff?”

Mr. Schiff nods.

“And seen the stones there?”

“Yes.”

The King says, “And did they tell you the same story?”

“They did not.”

“What story did they tell?”

Mr. Schiff says, “Your majesty, in every land, they spoke the story advocated by that realm’s King or Queen; save in three.”

“Name them.”

“Adelais,” says Mr. Schiff. “In Adelais; in Auberi; in Samaria.”

“And there?”

“The stones spoke of a world more ancient than I can imagine. Their histories stretched for millions of years, scarred with the march of glaciers and the dances of the sea. They told me that the Kings and Queens of this world are young and lacking in majesty, interlopers in the history of stone.”

The King frowns slightly. He rubs his forehead where the crown has left its scar.

“And so you come to me,” he says, “with a request.”

“Yes,” Mr. Schiff agrees. “Stones speak of events, but not of motivations. They speak of land, and sea, and air, and fire. They do not speak of us. I wish to place in context the history of the stones; and so I come to you.”

“You would have me tell you what this stone does not?”

“That is my request, your majesty,” says Mr. Schiff.

“Mr. Schiff,” says the King, “I am afraid that I must imprison you; and that it is likely that, instead of giving you my daughter’s hand or answering your questions, I must cast you from the edge of the world to fall eternally in darkness.”

“I regret that,” says Mr. Schiff. “What of your proclamation?”

“My daughter has spoken your name,” says the King. “And in so doing, chosen her husband; but to whom did she speak it? A dozen princes attend upon my court, and more troubadours than I can count; the room bulges also with ministers, priests, and dandies. Did she speak to you? I cannot say. I have choices to think upon.”

“I see.”

The guards come and take Mr. Schiff to the oubliette, and cast him in. There he waits in darkness until he sees the flicker of a light.

“It is myself,” Parvati says, above.

“Good day.”

The King’s daughter drops a lamp into his hands. Then she shimmies down and hangs for a moment from the lip of the oubliette. She falls, landing gently beside him.

“You have disturbed my father,” she says.

“I took liberties,” he admits.

“I will tell you the history of this place,” she says.

“I would prefer if you helped me from the oubliette.”

“How?”

He hesitates. She looks at him quizzically.

“How did you plan to escape again?” he asks.

“The guards will come for you in a day or two,” she says. “Then you will say: ‘look! I have the Lady Parvati with me. You should take note, and avoid leaving her to rot in this oubliette.’”

“I see.”

“I wished to spend a day with you,” she says, “before you die.”

Mr. Schiff looks down. “Then by all means,” he says, “let us begin with history.”

“You are a scholar,” she says. “So you know how scholarship works.”

“Yes,” he says.

“For many years,” she says, “people did not. They believed in objective rules, and applied them in a rigorous fashion.”

Mr. Schiff nods. “I’ve seen the scars of this,” he says, “in Adelais; in Auberi; and in Samaria.”

“In a cold dark room they met,” she says, and continues:

In a cold dark room they met. Sixteen men and women who understood. One, who did not.

“I shall unmake you,” said the King to that one.

She spat.

Then he conducted his tests. He weighed her. He measured her. He tested her density. He watched her with open and closed eyes. And every test showed that she was not real, for that was the outcome he had chosen; and when the last of her was gone, he spoke.

“As I have proven her the void, I shall prove myself a god; and a realm I shall form from the substance that she had.”

“It’s the way of things,” Parvati says. “The truth is defined by those who decide it most passionately in advance.”

“I know,” says Mr. Schiff.

“It’s sad.”

“Why?” he asks.

“People abuse that. They choose truths advantageous to themselves.”

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps?”

Mr. Schiff smiles at her. “I like to imagine,” he says, “that, given the utmost rein to decide our own truths, the nature of people would drive them towards a perfect world.”

Parvati frowns at him. “This does not seem in accord with the evidence,” she says.

“I know,” Mr. Schiff says. “That’s why I study Kings.”