Olympus, the golden, floating city, high above the earth, the city of wonder, of beautiful people of great power. Olympus, the mighty, the fearless, a city of joy and of scandals, of love, of hatred, of wisdom, of war. Olympus, home of the great.
In the center of the great city stood a building higher than the rest. Marble and gold, it shone in the glimmering light of the afternoon sun. Circling it, cradling it, bent majestic branches of perfumed flowers, clinging and climbing ever upwards. Columns of white circled its base. It boasted of wealth beyond imagination. This was the home of the greatest being on Olympus, the king, the leader, the ruler, a man named Zhuts.
Zhuts was a man of many things. He was a man of power, a great leader, a man of stature and knowledge. He was a man of passion, of deep hatred and deeper love. A man who never forgave a wrong, who acted without thought.
Whether it was these passions or others, one of them being the marriage to his half-sister, Sherah, that drove him to take many wives and concubines, take them he did, in large numbers, whether against their will or no. After all, he was their king.
His actions embittered Sherah to no end. She was a beautiful woman, delicate and dark haired, with large, expressive, brown eyes. She was dainty and petite, graceful as a flitting swallow. It was her great shame that of her two sons, her only children, from her husband one was a poor cripple, destined to rule in his father’s place after his death, but without the power to become even a portion as strong and powerful as Zhuts.
His younger brother, all that a king should be, could only wait in second place, pretending not to wish for the death of his pitiful brother, once he was old enough to care, he was scarcely more than an infant.
Sherah was a woman of deep jealousy and hatred, vain of her own beauty, and well aware of the failings in her eldest child. If she discovered her husband’s infidelities the woman would suffer great pains. Executions had occurred more than once.
However, Sherah was compassionate to many of Zhuts’ illegitimate offspring. In her own way she was a gracious queen. Had she not been forced to marry her half-brother by decree of law she might have actually been happy. As it was, she busied herself in her great and beautiful gardens near the palace, surrounded by beauty and peacocks, sending her eldest son to his father’s concubines to keep him out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind.
Zhuts’ reputation with the ladies was well known by all the dwelt in Olympus. Fathers either hid their daughters, or pushed them forward. Life in the palace was no small thing for a girl, at times better than life elsewhere, if they could avoid Sherah’s wrath. Those that hid their daughters often discovered that to do such a thing would only ignite Zhuts’ interest more. No woman was sacred to the king, not even the priestesses that were sworn to their virtue. Zhuts, the great king, could not see past his own desires.
Sherah was alert the first moment she lay her eyes on Mestys. The young girl was coming into the palace to replace one of the priestesses that had recently died. She was well known in the palace, having spent her childhood there, her mother one of Sherah’s maidservants. The young Mestys had found favor in the queens eyes. In fact, it had been Sherah’s kindness that had led to Mestys’ acceptance into the orders of the palace. She had been a pretty, bright, child. The woman that bowed low before Sherah was stunning, intelligence glowing in her gray eyes.
Zhuts will destroy this one, Sherah thought to herself, even as she reached out a hand to lift the girl’s head. She felt a pang of pity for herself, and for the girl. It was only a matter of time before Zhuts caught sight of the girl, then all would be lost.
“Why does my mistress hate me so?” She heard Mestys ask one of the chambermaids not long after she had joined the service.
“She does not hate you,” The girl explained, her round, blue, eyes and gaping mouth displaying her astonishment. “It is just that you are beautiful. The beautiful ones are always taken by the master.”
Mestys’ chin went up a notch. “Not I,” she vowed. “I have taken an oath, and I will abide by it.”
Oh, child, child, Sherah mourned, turning away from the doorway with tears of compassion in her eyes. How many have said those words? She took a deep swallow of the wine that her page offered her, gracefully gliding towards her rooms, where she would suffer headaches for the rest of the day, sending her maids and priestesses in a flurry of activity around her.
After an afternoon of torment Sherah called Mestys to her. “I would have you serve as a priestess in my own parts of the house, rather than the great temple. I would keep you near to me. Your wisdom is inspiring, your face pleasant to look at. I pray that you serve me.”
Mestys clasped her mistress’ hands to her cheek. “My lady! I have dreamed that you would accept me into your service! I thought perhaps, given the chance, I would be able to make you smile.”
Sherah did smile, though with such sadness that it touched the girl’s heart. I will do my best to take that sadness away, Mestys thought to herself. She settled next to the queen and leaned towards her as a friend. “There was once,” she said in a low voice, “a famous philosopher…”
It was the first of many tales. Mestys had been a brilliant child, but in the woman it was combined with beauty, charm, and wit, in a way that made even Sherah forget her sorrows and begin to smile. She laughed gaily when Mestys told her stories, and even began to spend more and more time away from her own quarters, wandering out into the open and into the sunlight.
Zhuts noticed the difference in his wife immediately. Though he was forever taking mistresses he was well in tune to his wife’s moods and behavior. This new flush of radiance on her cheeks, this new dance of laughter in her brown eyes, the new energy in her step, they all made him delight and wonder. As a liar will suspect all of lying and a thief will suspect all of robbing him, Zhuts, in turn, suspected that Sherah had taken a lover. At first the thought made him laugh, but he soon discovered himself to be just as jealous as Sherah at her worst. She was his wife! The wife of Zhuts, the mighty, ruler of the sky! She had no business dallying with other, lesser, men, and be happier for it! The thought would not leave his head. It distracted him so that he could think of nothing else.
He decided to sneak up upon Sherah and her lover when they trysted, while he was normally away, and to kill the man before her, demanding that she never dishonor him again. He would show her once and for all that she was his and his alone! He hid himself behind a tapestry in her parlor and waited.
As he sprang out to challenge them he found not a lover, but rather a beautiful girl that he had never seen before, full of wit and laughter, telling tales that set even the melancholy Sherah to laughing. He determined then and there, seeing the pout of her lips and the long white column of her throat as she tossed back her head to laugh, that she would be his.
Zhuts had not become great through subtlety. He, with the help of his mother, had killed his father, who had imprisoned his brothers and sisters, and taken over the throne, splitting the levels of the kingdom with his elder siblings, keeping the sky, and Olympus, for himself. He was not a subtle man. He decided what he wanted and took it, without any thought for anyone else.
Mestys scorned him openly, then she fled, then she wept, then she threatened, then she raged. He was forced to lock her up, yet he could not let her go. She fascinated him, even as she despised him, reviling him as much as she could, spitting into his face. When she learned that she was with child she threatened to kill herself, so he bound her in the darkest recesses of the castle and had her guarded by six of his most trustworthy guards to prevent her from doing herself, or her child, any harm.
Though he had acted with all precautions, the day that she was to deliver her child she was found hanging in her cell, she had wrapped her own long hair around a beam and then around her own throat. Zhuts raged, even as he sent for a midwife. He would have this child, whether the mother had ever been rightfully his or not. This baby would be his. Mestys had denied him her love, but she would not deny him their child.
The midwife whimpered in fear when she saw Mestys, still swinging from her beautiful hair, her face hideously malformed and twisted, a bitter smile of triumph on her blue lips, making even Zhuts to shudder at the joy she had taken in denying him one last thing. He had the guards cut down and laid a heavy hand on the midwife’s shoulder. “If the child lives you will never want for anything again,” He told her. “If the child dies you will wish all your days that you had never been born.”
Shaking, the midwife approached the body with a long knife. Zhuts forced himself to watch as she drew it across the woman’s swollen belly. His nostrils flared with disgust. The midwife turned, just briefly, terror in her eyes. Surely the baby was dead, just as the mother. Yet, the mother’s body was still warm, perhaps there was hope.
“Move, woman,” Zhuts hissed.
The midwife reached into Mestys body and made one last, long cut. She lifted something into the air and slapped it, once, twice, three times, so hard that Zhuts winced in sympathy. The infant in her arms gurgled once, choked, then screamed out in anger. It was a girl, perfectly formed, already beautiful, though still coated with her mother’s blood. She opened her eyes and stared straight at Zhuts. Her eyes were gray and ancient, knowing. It was as if Mestys eyes were staring out of her baby’s face.
Without thinking Zhuts turned and ran from the room. Those eyes haunted him with a remorse he had never felt in his life, not when he killed his father, not when he had killed, raped, and pursued women, killed children. None of these things had ever touched him. The baby’s eyes drove him crazy. With a yell he lifted a potted plant high over his head and sent it across the room to shatter against a pillar. He clasped his head with both his hands and ran to his rooms, bellowing for his eldest son, Haphest, to attend him.
Down in the dungeon Sherah appeared to take the infant out of the arms of the still trembling midwife. She stared down at Mestys’ body and covered the infant’s eyes. Who knew what a baby remembered about their hour of birth. “Burn her body with the honor of one of the royal family,” she commanded the guard. “She served well. She does not deserve dishonor in her death.” She looked down at the baby in her arms, then up to the midwife, who was hovering uneasily. “I will nurse this babe alongside my own son. After all, they are brother and sister. I will raise her as my own, as my daughter, but she will know of her true mother. Oh, yes, she will know.”
The midwife flinched at the ice in Sherah’s voice.
Sherah turned in the doorway, her large brown eyes hard as steel. “I forbid any of you to speak to Zhuts about the child. As far as he is to know she died down here with her mother. Do you understand? Anyone who speaks of her or what I have done here today will die by my own hand if it needs be. Have I your word?”
Wordlessly the soldiers and the midwife nodded. They had never seen Sherah like this. The woman’s soft and gentle nature were well known, this hardness and determination were new.
“I will call you Maethna,” Sherah whispered to the babe, looking into the ancient, gray, eyes. “It means ‘wisdom’.”
“Go away, Zeres,” Maethna hissed, pushing her brother out of the way. “You make too much noise.”
Zeres elbowed her rudely in the stomach, ignoring her retaliating slap. “Can you see him?”
“Who?” Maethna asked scornfully. “Zhuts? Not likely!”
“Then why are we here?” Zeres whined. He was used to getting his way and he had been hoping to catch a glimpse of his father.
“Well, I’m here to see Demetra,” Maethna whispered. “Sherah said that she was visiting today with her daughter. Phesperi is our age, you know.”
“Our age?” Zeres demanded. “I am many many months older than you! You were an infant still when I could walk!”
“Hush, you little ghurgol. You don’t know anything. You just bellyache and whimper all day long, like a dog. Yes, exactly like a dog. Why don’t you go tag along with Jazpallo and leave me alone?”
“Jazpallo doesn’t want me today,” Zeres sniffled. “He is taking out his chariot and does not have time to teach me to ride the kesperai today.”
“I do not wonder that he is finding ways to keep you away from him,” Maethna said scornfully. “Why don’t you go get lost in the catacombs? I don’t want you.”
“Maethna, Zeres,” Sherah called from her rooms. “Children, please come here. There are people I want you to meet. Visitors from the earth-lands.”
Maethna and Zeres ducked around the column and raced towards their mother. Sherah smiled as she saw them, her sturdy six year old son, all that his elder brother should have been, and her adopted daughter, looking more and more like her beloved mother every day.
“Children,” Sherah said pleasantly. “Your aunt, Demetra, and her daughter Phesperi, your cousin.”
Demetra was a slim, beautiful figure, with wheat-golden hair and sky blue eyes. Her daughter looked like a miniature version of herself. Both were dressed in flowing robes, their golden hair pinned back with a golden pin in the shape of a staff of wheat. Demetra smiled, and Maethna saw that her smile was the kind that would make anyone do anything to keep.
“Demetra rules over the fertile lands,” Sherah said softly. “Without her there would never be enough to eat.”
Zeres bowed and Maethna curtsied, but she kept her eyes on her aunt. So, this was a woman with power. She looked no different than any of the number of ladies that Maethna saw in any given day.
“Demetra has come to visit at my request,” Sherah said softly. “I have asked her to take you, Maethna, from Olympus and see to your schooling until you are of age.”
Maethna stared at her in astonishment. “Leave Olympus!”
“There will be girls your age there, for you to study with and become friends with. I know you have not been satisfied with having Zeres as your only companion.”
“Zeres is a wuss-pup,” Maethna said before she could help herself.
“Hey!” Zeres protested.
A smile touched Sherah’s lips. “That may be as it is or not. You will go with Demetra, though, whether gladly or in anger, and I pray that you will not feel anger towards me. I think it is to your benefit. You are a wise girl, child though you may be. Demetra has much that she can teach you.”
“I will go,” Maethna said. “Because you wish it of me. But I will return, when I am old and wise enough, and I will be with you again.”
Sherah smiled, but this time there was sadness in her eyes. “Such loyalty! You are very much like your mother! Come, my precious daughter-in-spirit, give me a kiss goodbye.”
Maethna flung herself into the queen’s arms and gave her not one, but two kisses. “You will always be my mother,” she said brokenly.
She looked at Zeres. “When I return I will be smarter than you.”
“Oh yeah?’ Zeres demanded. “Well, I’ll be stronger! And stronger is better!”
Maethna tossed her head proudly. “We shall see.”
So, what do you think? Do you want more?