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A gripping retelling of the myth of Perseus by award-winning author Gwyneth Jones, writing as Ann Halam.
Perseus, the God-Touched son of Zeus, lives in luxury on the island of Serifos. But trouble is brewing in the world - Gods and mortals are bringing discord closer to his home shores.
When a beautiful stranger, a fugitive from another disaster zone, arrives on the island, Perseus is smitten. But Andromeda isn't all she seems. She must die to save her people, and a stunning, world-changing discovery will die with her, unless Perseus abandons everything to confront the Medusa quest.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Print pages: 240
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A second look reassured us. Those people clogging up the busy waterfront had come a long way; they didn’t even look like islanders. We grinned at each other ruefully, sharing the shock and the guilty relief. Oh, good, not us this time. Some other poor victims of hateful injustice, divine displeasure or a pirate raid.
Moumi and I had been making this trip together, twice a shipping season, since I was a little boy. I had loved the whole thing, in those days. The market stalls where I got spoiled rotten. The quiet times when I would sit under a tree or by a fountain, and think; while Moumi talked to merchants, and other, shifty-looking people. Everything was different now that I was nearly grown. I understood what was going on at home, and that knowledge had opened my eyes to the state my whole world was in.
‘The trouble is,’ said Moumi, ‘too many refugees have been dumped on the Naxians, and it’s mostly the worst off. The ones who have nothing: no relatives who will take them in, no trades. Oh, I hope the town doesn’t turn the soldiers on them.’
Naxos isn’t the richest of the islands we call the ‘Turning Islands’; which is ‘Kyklades’ in Greek. It isn’t the one with most sea-route connections, either, that’s Paros; but it’s the biggest. Penniless refugees tended to end up here as a last resort, on the grounds there was always room for a few more. We were blocking the alley. We led the mules along the colonnade and stopped by a drinking fountain to regroup. We had laden animals: one of them—dear Brainy—liable to panic in a noisy crowd. We shifted Music to the back and Brainy to the middle place (which he usually didn’t like), beside a group of men who were muttering about Trojans and Achaeans.
Troy ruled the far-distant east end of the Middle Sea. The Achaeans had taken over on the Greek Mainland, which lay to the north of us; a little too close for comfort. These two Great Powers (or bully gangs, depending on your point of view) were in a continual state of undeclared war, always picking on each others’ so-called allies. The men thought one or other of them was responsible for the new influx, but they couldn’t decide which. I asked a Naxian matriarch, who was standing there frowning darkly at the scene; accompanied by servant boys and a heavy hand-cart full of oil jars.
‘Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know who they are?’
The lady looked us over, noting our colouring: Moumi’s hair, coming out from under her scarf in ringlets of pure gold. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, between the lines of Egyptian-style kohl. ‘You’re Achaeans, aren’t you?’
‘Not anymore,’ said my mother, without taking offence. ‘We were invited to leave, by the king of our former country, shortly after my son was born. We were castaways ourselves once, that’s why we feel sympathy for their plight.’
My mother looks like a teenager, strangers often take her for my sister. But when she feels like it she can take on the hauteur of an Argolide princess; because that’s what she used to be. Also, we had three fine-looking mules in tow: which made us respectable even if we weren’t Naxian. The lady changed her tone. ‘They’re not from the Turning Islands, madam. No one can understand the language they speak. The sailors say they’re from the south, Libya or somewhere like that. Apparently there’s been a quake and tidal wave, it wiped out a whole coast.’
A shiver went through me. A big quake is a fearful portent—but it wasn’t fear I felt, not exactly fear. ‘Was there a Supernatural involved?’ I blurted. ‘Who was it?’
The woman took a second look, and her eyes widened: she’d recognised us. ‘It’s none of my business,’ she muttered at last, fearful and wary. ‘Excuse me, my lady, er, young sir. I must get to the dock.’ She hustled her boys and her cart away.
Our story was old news, but it had been spread all over the place by tale-tellers, and people tend to remember gossip about the god-touched. We still got that spooked reaction occasionally. I didn’t like it, but sometimes—I have to admit—it was my own fault. At moments of stress I tend to forget that normal people don’t talk about the Achaean Divinities as if they’re some ordinary kind of trouble-making Big Shots—
‘Don’t do that, Perseus,’ said my mother (whose name was Danae, of the shower of gold: the famous imprisoned princess who had once been visited by the chief of the Achaean Gods, my father).
‘Sorry. I didn’t think.’
I saw that the nymph of the fountain, barely visible in the sunlight, was watching me. I wondered what that fragile creature made of our tragedies and disasters, and all the human bustle that had grown up around her timeless little world—
Meanwhile my mortal mother, who could not see the spirit of the water, had forged off on her own with the mules, into the churning crowd. I hurried to catch up.
The lady with the cart of oil was heading for the Paros jetty, where the regular ferry was already in dock. Our ship, the mighty Blue Star Afroditi, was still far out on the dark sea. Port Authority tugs could be seen guiding her in, their smart oars flashing in the sunlight. The Naxos Militia were in amongst the crowd, trying to get the refugees to move on. They had a right, I suppose, but the refugees had nowhere to go. Some of them had set up little camps, oblivious of people trying to get by: as if they thought they could settle down and live on the waterfront. It was a mess. Scuffles were breaking out. Armoured men were grappling with unarmed men and women, pathetic belongings were flying about, children were screaming.
The Holy Sisters had arrived, I could see their grey robes moving towards the trouble: but how much good could they do? The militia disgusted me, they made me think of the so-called king of Serifos and his brutal followers. Yet I could understand their frustration, and I had no answers. Me, I just wanted to fling everything I possessed at the miserable folk, and run away—
I got up front and grabbed Dolly’s bridle. Moumi dropped back to keep the rearguard, by Music’s glossy dark rump. Brainy pressed close to Dolly, our sensible old grey, his ears back and his big teeth bared. We reached the gates of the splendid harbour mole. We were allowed to pass through, and got waved over to the mule line. Everything was suddenly quiet and ordered again: but I was ready to spit, between fury and shame at my own helplessness.
Moumi started unloading. I began to help, not sure why she was doing this. Bundles of vegetables, wax-sealed jars of honey and kitron liqueur, sacks of pulses, speciality oils and spices.
‘Coin would be better,’ she said. ‘But we haven’t enough.’
We tried to avoid taking coin for our trade-goods. With all due respect, if you ask for an assay on the spot it can cause offence. And even if the coin is pure, and weighs what it’s supposed to weigh, the metals market changes so fast. You can never be sure what silver or copper is going to be worth, a shipping season down the line. If we were paid in money we spent it at once on the kind of fancy sundries a taverna can always use: napkins, scented soap, exotic produce.
‘Better for what?’
‘I’m going to give half a mule-load to the Holy Sisters,’ said Moumi, refastening Brainy’s pack strap with a brisk tug. ‘They can trade it for food, shelter, whatever those people need. I’ve been running over the figures in my head. We can afford it.’
That’s one of the reasons why I love my mother. She never puts on airs about it, like some smug charitable ladies: but she makes up her mind fast, and she does the right thing while I’m floundering. ‘What’ll Dicty say?’
Moumi grinned at me. We both knew that the boss wouldn’t say a thing, except to wonder if she should have given more. ‘Generosity is good advertising,’ she quoted.
‘It impresses people,’ I agreed, also quoting the boss. ‘An open hand makes you look successful, and that’s always good for business.’
‘I’ll get a receipt. The nuns will tell the refugees who we are, and where we live. They’ll know where to come if they can ever pay us back.’
We sorted out half a load of easily tradeable goods, and Moumi set off. She took Dolly, who could be trusted. Brainy looked after them in disbelief, and looked at me with a horrified expression in his big eyes, like we’re never going to see them again! He’s a scaredy cat, poor Brainy. I never knew a brighter mule, but he has too much imagination.
So there I was alone on the dock with the mules, two laden pack-saddles and a half-load that would be Dolly’s when she came back. Music let out two or three of his cracking great honks, (it’s not for nothing he’s called Music), tipped up his nearside back hoof and drifted off into a trance on three legs. Brainy calmed down and relaxed, with his chin on Music’s backside. I had some preserved figs in my wallet, and a couple of olive-bread rolls. I propped myself against a pack-saddle, chewing, and checked out the action.
Like her sister ship the Dimitra, the ship that had brought us to Naxos, Afroditi plied the whole western line. She was coming back from Fira now; the island which had once been the queen of the Kyklades, a fabulous city-state, but was now a ruined stump of land where nobody could live. She’d touched at Milos, the obsidian island, where the cutting-edge black glass comes from. She’d be going all the way to the Mainland after she dropped us at Serifos. She had plenty of custom today: islanders and foreigners, couriers and merchants; maybe from as far away as Kriti or Eygpt.
The drivers and foot-passengers were in the covered arcade. The sun was going down, behind Great Mother’s sanctuary isle across the harbour channel, but it was still hot enough to bother people. The Port Authority police, in their spruce white uniforms, were watching the tugs or else had taken shelter in the big open customs shed. Only muleboys and teamsters’ lads were hanging around the vehicle lines. Among them I could see a gang I didn’t care to meet, and I had a feeling they were talking about me.
I decided to go for a stroll. There was a girl walking on her own along the edge of the dock. She’d caught my eye, so I headed in that direction. She was tall and slim, and had a distinguished look. I thought she might be a Phoenician, for the highly intellectual reason that she was wearing a red dress. The word for Phoenician in our language means ‘the Red People’. No one really knows why. It’s not as if they’re red, as if they’d been painted; they’re more a baked brick-colour. But this girl’s skin was dark, a clear, vivid darkness like polished obsidian.
She didn’t notice me, so I kept on looking. She had very good hair. It fell down her back in closely curling black ringlets, not tied up but held off her face with combs. Under her red dress she was wearing trousers gathered at the ankle, a style we call ‘Skythian’, though nobody I know has ever seen a Skythian. The dress was fastened on both shoulders; which I liked. The girls on our island leave one shoulder and breast bare, unless they’re doing heavy work. They think this is stylish, to me it looks half-cooked. The two brooches her a nice cleavage. She stopped and stared into the clear water of the harbour, pushing a pair of yellow bracelets up and down her arms, lost in thought.
I stopped at a polite distance, just close enough for conversation. ‘There’s supposed to be big octopus in there, they come out hunting about now; d’you see any?’
‘Are you waiting for the Afroditi?’
‘Are you going far? Is the rest of your party in the arcade?’
She looked up, at last. She looked at me very directly, with sombre eyes: letting me know she had too much on her mind to care about my lame chat-up lines.
‘I’m travelling alone. Thank you.’
I was startled. Every shipping season well-off young people travelled for fun around the Middle Sea, looking for adventure: girls as well as boys. I envied them, and knew that could never be me. But she didn’t look like one of those carefree kids, and who travels alone? It isn’t healthy these days, no matter who you are.
The next thing she said surprised me even more.
‘I’ve been watching you. The lady you were with: I saw her taking a mule-load to the Holy Sisters. What was that for?’
‘It’s for the refugees,’ I said. ‘The victims of the Libyan earthquake.’
‘That’s what I thought.’ Her eyes were black and very sad. Was she travelling to a funeral, maybe? ‘It was good of you and the lady, is she your sister?’
‘She’s my mother. We’re in the taverna business, we were over here picking up supplies.’ I was embarrassed, I didn’t want us to sound like do-gooders. ‘Generosity is great advertising, an open hand makes you look successful.’
Not a smile. I wanted to say I was not trying to pick her up … Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Back off, make your retreat. But while my attention had been on this beautiful girl, the layabouts I didn’t want to meet had followed me.
‘Hey, Perseus. Hey, Big Boy!’
The chief miscreant was right there, strutting, fists in his belt. The rest of them, brainless muleboys and shiftless ox-cart juniors, were bunched behind him.
‘Tell your tasty new tart, let’s hear it. Is the yeller-haired ‘lady’ your mother, or your sister?’ He smacked his lips. ‘Or what …?’
It is my fate to be unusually big and strong for my age—well, for any age, to be honest. I was hardly shaving, but I looked like a challenge to the muscle-worshipping idiots of this world. This one was a prize specimen. I’d met him before, but managed to get away without having to thump him. He wasn’t a Serifiote, or he’d have known better. He was from Paros. Leather straps round his biceps, his bullet head shaved nearly to the skin, Trojan style, a sick, scared and greedy look on his pasty face … He was too old for his company, nothing like my equal, and just dying to take on the god-touched.
‘Blah, blah,’ I said, ‘Yackity-yack. Go ahead and talk, it doesn’t bother me.’
Then he said something else about Moumi, involving our so-called king, that I could not ignore as childish filth. The rest of them sniggered. I glanced around, to make sure the stranger had made herself scarce. She was still there, her black eyes snapping.
‘I’ll hold your tunic,’ she said. ‘Take it off.’
She was right, it was a good tunic and it would get wrecked. So I stripped, and went for the foul-mouthed toad. All the fury and shame in me, over those poor people on the waterfront, came boiling to my fists. I used it coldly. A couple of his friends decided to pitch in; which was their mistake. They talk about me, but they never learn.
The hangers-on picked the losers up and hauled them away. I dressed again and sat on a bollard, mopping the light sweat I’d worked up. ‘Will they be back?’ said the girl in the red dress. ‘Shall I fetch the port police?’
‘No, it’s all right. I’m sorry you had to see that, but now at least they won’t bother me on the ship. Guys I’ve knocked down tend to avoid me for a while.’ I looked at her, mugging apology. ‘I’m not proud of it.’
She laughed, really laughed, and it was like the sun coming out. Her clear-cut face was suddenly radiant. ‘Yes you are,’ she said.
I fell in love, at that moment. Was it because she laughed at me, because she saw through me? I don’t know. It was like lightning, and it had struck us both. I saw the same jolt in her eyes, it blazed in the air between us.
‘What’s your name?’ I demanded, urgently, as if I had a right.
‘Oh.’ She stared, and shook her head. ‘Call me, Kore.’
Now Kore is a Greek word, and it just means girl. It wouldn’t have been so strange if we’d been speaking the language of the islands, which is Minoan. But I knew Mainland Greek, of course—we all do—and she was a foreigner so I’d assumed she didn’t know our language. We were speaking Greek.
‘Your name is Girl?’ I said, bewildered. I saw her embarassment and felt like an oaf. She didn’t want to know me; I was wrong about the lightning. It was time to quit. I tried to do it gracefully.
All right, er, Girl. I’m Perseus, as you may have gathered. I’m from Serifos, from Dicty’s taverna. If you’re ever passing—’
There was a sudden frantic blowing of conches and shrilling of whistles. Afroditi was at the dock, the Port Authority police were marshalling the heavy vehicles. Huge ox cars, managed with daring and style, drawn by four and six pairs of massive, fiery beasts (you may think an ox is placid, but not these animals), came thundering down the breakwater and crashed up the great gangplank. It was a sight I loved, this mad, dangerous, and totally unneccessary race: but the noise was tremendous, the rush of their passing overwhelming. When I looked around; when I could speak, she was gone.
The sun had gone down, the stars began to glow. My mother was talking to friends. Something remarkable had happened. Our pal Taki the shipping magnate, owner of the Blue Star line, was on board. He’d taken pity on the most hopeless of the refugees, the ones the Naxians refused to keep, and allowed them on board. Taki was not known for his kind heart! People were saying that the Holy Sisters must have threatened him with divine vengeance: like all sailors he was terribly superstitious. I was on the upper deck, on my own. I listened to the boom-swish, boom-swish of the oars, the crack of canvas taking the breeze. I felt the timbers beneath me taking life; from the ocean that gave the Goddess Afroditi herself birth. The girl who had changed my life forever was on board this ship, but I was a tongue-tied fool: I didn’t dare to look for her. A little wooden crate went bobbing by, far below on the choppy dark waves. I shuddered and backed away, stumbling.
‘Not got your sealegs yet, Perseus?’
It was the girl in the red dress, holding a shawl around her head and shoulders against the cool of the evening. I noticed she wasn’t wearing her bracelets anymore.
‘It’s nothing. Just something I saw in the water.’ I knew I was looking sick. I leaned on the side again, and she came to stand beside me, her elbow almost touching mine. Her nearness made my throat close up, my head started to spin.
She looked down. ‘A wooden box?’
‘Anything small, floating, makes me queasy if I’m not expecting it. I don’t really remember why. It’s because of something a long time ago.’
She looked at me, I looked at her. The feeling between us was. . .
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