Read Snakehead Online

Authors: Ann Halam

Snakehead (10 page)

BOOK: Snakehead
13.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“You bet we will.”

Palikari closed his eyes.

“I’ll sit with him for a while,” said the boss. “You go back to that shining girl of yours. See if you can convince her she’s not dead yet.”

Koukla had gone to bed; the lamps were out. My mother, Anthe and Andromeda were in the dining room, in firelight by the great hearth. It was the dark before dawn, a chill hour even at midsummer. Anthe had changed into clean clothes and was combing out her wet hair. Moumi had made some sage tea. Andromeda was looking tired and shaken, but strangely calm. They were telling her about the harsh underbelly of the truce: the mines worked by kidnapped children, the brutal soldiers preying on villagers. Moumi poured me some tea. I sat holding the bowl, breathing fragrant steam.

“What kind of metal is it, in the mines?” asked Andromeda. “Is it gold?”

“No, mostly the new black metal,” said my mother. “Serifos is rotten with it.”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard of that. It’s very important. So Serifos is rich?”

“The
king
is rich.” Anthe dragged her comb viciously, and glowered into the red smolder of the fire. “Not the rest of us. He plays his Mainland friends off against each other, keeps the wealth and we’re supposed to be grateful. The people see him as a necessary evil. They call our boss ‘Papa Dicty.’ They look up to him, they
revere
him, but they accept the usurper. The boss himself, you heard him, half believes that Polydectes has the right to rule. Because gentleness is out of fashion. Because kindness and reason are signs of weakness!”

“There’s something else you should know, Andromeda,” added Moumi. “Polydectes wants me for his wife. He hasn’t been able to touch me: I’m his brother’s adopted daughter. But now that Perseus is a man, he feels he has to challenge my son, and claim me. I think that’s why Palikari was set upon. The king wants
us
to break the truce, because that would be a triumph over his brother. But he’s getting impatient.”

I’m not a man, I thought. Not really. I’m not anything like ready.

Andromeda nodded. “I see. Impatient.”

Then no one spoke. The princess, who had not yet
looked at me, seemed to gaze inward, as if looking at her own death, the fate she freely accepted. “Why didn’t your mother try to save you?” whispered Anthe.

“Anthe!” murmured my mother.

“No,” said Andromeda. “It’s all right, I don’t mind. She couldn’t say no, Anthe. She came to Haifa, she married my father, Kephus, knowing what she’d have to accept.”

“The child sacrifices,” said Moumi.

“Yes.”

In the terrible times, right after the Great Disaster, hideous things had been committed in our Turning Islands, and in the palaces of Kriti. The legacy of those nightmare years was still with us, making cruelty and rule by force acceptable. What the Phoenicians did was something else, something worse. They practiced child sacrifice, not just on rare occasions but regularly, without shame.

They’d always done it. It was a scandal we’d heard about even on Serifos. But the Phoenician cities were extremely rich and extremely powerful. And Cassiopeia was a great queen.

“She knew it was horrible, and she let it continue,” said Andromeda. “To keep her power. How could she refuse, when they told her it was her turn?”

The wall paintings were rising out of the night, their faded colors woken by the gray dawn. The caïque had been for Andromeda, I realized, not for us. The boss had known who she was, and he’d been afraid the king would
take her and send her back to Haifa, for some kind of reward.

“Do you think there are people searching for you?”

Andromeda shrugged. “I suppose so. I made it look as if I’d gone south, into Africa. My nurse, who helped me get away, comes from the desert. She’s back with her family; she should be safe from retribution. I took a ship to the west. When I was doing it, I thought I had everything planned, but I didn’t. I didn’t think about what my mother would do when she found I was gone. I just ran. Then I met the refugees in Naxos. They couldn’t have known me; they were from a country on the edge of the quake zone, far from the city. I paid their fares with gold, not because I was generous, but because I was scared and ashamed…. I suppose the shipowner may have given me away. I paid him with so much gold. He didn’t know who I was then, but he must have realized by now. It was his agent who told Papa Dicty the rumor that Andromeda had escaped.”

“Taki will have melted the bracelets down,” said Anthe. “If he thinks he harbored a runaway princess, he won’t have told anyone. It would be bad for business.”

“It doesn’t matter, Anthe. I’m not running anymore.”

We were silent, brought back to earth, but she continued, almost cheerfully. “There’s a festival when our rains begin. It’s in the tenth month. That’s when I’m to be given to the monster…. They call it a sea monster, because the quakes come from the sea. I don’t know what
it is really, but I know it will kill me. I’ll have to find a ship going east, as soon as the wind changes.”

There would be no eastbound ships as long as the summer wind was blowing.

I have a month, I thought with desperate hope. A month to convince her not to go back. But I knew why she was refusing to look at me. She had tried to run, we had fallen in love, but it was no use. Her fate had tracked her down, and it would not let her go. I thought of war on Serifos, and I felt as if I was being torn apart. A ray of sunlight struck across the floor. Mémé the cat walked in, yawning, and stopped in surprise to see us up.

“We should go to bed,” said Moumi. “We’re going to be dog-tired later, and we have a restaurant to run.”

She was right. Dicty’s must open as usual. Good food, good conversation, a welcome for strangers: life the way it ought to be. We must not be beaten.

Before I went to bed, I went to Dicty’s office. I opened the safe, and took out the tallyboards where she had written down the “Dark Water” song. The dancing marks seemed to be alive: the living, immortal souls of human words…. Andromeda had told Dicty, so casually, that she had invented a new kind of writing. Could that be true? Yes, I thought. It’s true. I felt the presence of a mysterious power, greater,
more real
than all Taki’s treasure, or all the black metal in the islands. A power that might change
the world. How could the girl who had created this new thing be marked for death?

I thought of the crying and weeping I had heard when I was on the hill with Anthe. Andromeda must have been in the Sacred Enclosure then. I imagined (no, I knew!) that the spirits of rock and tree and water had wept at the moment when my beloved dedicated herself to death, of her own free will. Why would the spirits weep, if she was right to sacrifice herself?

I had been running away from the Gods all my life. My mother had insisted on teaching me all she knew about the Achaean Supernaturals. She said I needed to understand what I was. Me, I’d never cared. I wanted to be like the boss, who was far too rational to believe you could appease an earthquake by human sacrifice. He honored the Great Mother, without fuss, and ignored all the rest of them. He loved life, he tried to do right. That was the religion for me.

Now I wanted to understand, and I couldn’t.

I remembered her on the dockside at Naxos: her black eyes snapping when she offered to hold my tunic while I dusted off the louts who had insulted Moumi. Now I didn’t feel any of the flustered panic of being in love. I could see no way out of our troubles. I just knew that I would stand by her, and she would stand by me. It was enough.

M
oumi woke me to take my turn sitting with Palikari. It was the night after the attack; he had a fever. I crawled up from a black, dreamless pit and stumbled to the wellhouse. As I stood in the yard, dripping, scouring my head with a rough towel to get my brain going, I saw a shooting star, a lance of brilliant gold. It dived across the starry sky and seemed to plunge into the sea, just beyond the headland that shelters our harbor.

Something’s coming, I thought. Good news, or bad?

Later that morning I went for a walk out of town, as far as Moni and Aten’s farm. The wheat terraces gleamed, most of them already shorn to dry, glittering stubble. Grapes were swelling, jewel-colored under the vine leaves. The sky was clear from horizon to horizon, but the air quivered with tension, as if a storm was coming. It
was earthquake weather. On the way back I sat and talked for a while at the bar we called the Yacht Club, a hangout for the young people, off-islanders, who were wandering around the Middle Sea for sheer adventure. They asked after Pali; they knew he was off work. I said he had a fever, that he’d be laid up for a few days. Nothing serious … Had the attack on Palikari changed everything, or was it just another skirmish in the truce? I knew which option the boss preferred; or I thought I did. Peace at almost any price. Was he right?

I was worried about Anthe. Today she’d been muttering to Koukla that it would be easy for a girl to dress up, get herself “invited” into the High Place, and get close to the tyrant king—with a fish-gutting knife in her clothes, or hidden in her hair. And maybe a girl should do it, before Papa Dicty started arming the Seatown lads with boat hooks, or before any stupid so-called heroes she knew got hacked to dog meat just trying to get through the gates of the citadel. Koukla hadn’t told the boss; she didn’t want to worry him. But she was afraid our wildcat was serious.

I could not make up my mind to go home. I left the Yacht Club and walked over the headland, with the strange idea that I wanted to see where that shooting star had landed. The first inlet was one of the places where people went to bathe, but there was nobody down there, only a rowboat drawn up on the sand. The oars lay inside.

Out on the water a big pleasure boat was moored, a real monster, all shining paint and polished metal that looked like gold. It had three raked masts and a sleek, tall prow bearing the name
The Magnificent Escape
. I’d never seen it before, but I knew what I was supposed to do. Time had stopped. The bathing inlet was a reflection of itself, like colors in a film of oil, deeper, richer than any colors in life, and yet ungraspable.

The Magnificent Escape
looked like a pleasure yacht, but it felt (how can I explain this?), it
felt
like one of those spirits in the goat hollow. I had passed a boundary, into that other world; and maybe the strangest thing was that I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen this coming.

I pushed the little rowboat off, climbed in and rowed out to meet my father. When I reached the yacht’s dark blue, glossy flank, two sailors dressed in white slung a ladder of silvery metal over the side. I looked for some way to make my boat fast, but there was none. I shipped the oars, stood up and grabbed hold of the ladder.

The sailors had very short hair and clean-shaven faces. One was a dark African, the other so pale his eyes looked transparent. Their spotless whites were strangely styled, but they behaved exactly like snooty servants. The way they led me into the opulent wheelhouse was designed to tell me that they knew what my tunic had cost, they couldn’t believe my tasteless haircut, and that I wasn’t someone with whom their master would normally deign
to associate. “Please allow us to attend to you, sir,” said the pale one, giving my dusty sandals a once-over of supreme disdain.

There’s a way to brush someone’s clothes and wash their feet and hands, before a meal or a social visit, so that you make it dignified on both sides, friendly and kind. There’s a way
not
to do it. The sailor-servants were experts at the second version. I was grateful to them for steadying my mind. By the time they’d finished treating me like scum, my fear and trembling had vanished. They showed me along a companionway done out in a fabulous, fine-grained, red-brown wood; opened the door of a stateroom, and ushered me through.

The sailors didn’t come in. The door was shut behind me. A very big man, magnificently built, sat at his ease, his legs crossed, his arm along the back of a couch. He had a fine head of red-gold hair, and a curling beard. He was dressed in spotless white, in the same strange style as his servants: loose trousers and a stiff, long-sleeved jacket with gold braid on it. I knew I was looking at my father, Great Zeus, ruler of the Supernaturals. The God who had once deigned to visit the princess Danae in her prison tower, and set my life in motion. I am tall and strong. He was on a different scale: not only bigger than any human being ought to be, but you could feel that most of him was
elsewhere
, uncontained in this picture, this image. I had an urge to fall on my knees; I fought it down.

“Very nice,” he said, after a thoughtful appraisal. “Very nice indeed.”

I knew about his habits. My old man
collects
half-mortal children the way a mortal, filthy-rich potentate might collect beautiful vases, or rare insects impaled on pins. He breeds us as a hobby. That wasn’t what my mother had told me, but it was what I’d worked out for myself. How nice that I had won his approval. I didn’t thank him for the compliment, though I’d have loved to say something sarcastic: I couldn’t trust my voice yet. I would not kneel, but he scared me to death, and he knew it.

BOOK: Snakehead
13.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Inverted Forest by John Dalton
Lightning Kissed by Lila Felix
Eleanor of Aquitaine by Marion Meade
Steel Beneath the Skin by Niall Teasdale
Alector's Choice by L. E. Modesitt
Unlaced Corset by Michael Meadows