Zeno’s Last Paradox
by Tony Pi
“Reason your way out of this, myth-slayer!”
Their leader laughed as he and the other soldiers pitched me before the altar. They fled without a backward glance. I cursed each one by name. Once, all of them had lauded my teachings, as did their parents before them. Now they heeded the Gorgon of Elea, and flogged me for daring to rebel.
I did not know if I could free my city of her, but try I must. No one else understood the Gorgon’s true power, or what it would take to destroy her. I was Elea’s last hope.
The monster culled the youth of the city; she added a voice to her stone chorus at each new moon. Twelve statues, singing silent praise in the theatre where my master Parmenides once preached democracy and philosophy. Now no one braved the acropolis, save to mourn their kin.
The brazier only shed light enough to see by, and shadows still cloaked the statues’ faces. I found a stone man’s legs and pulled myself up, and slung my arm around his neck. With my thumb, I traced the shape of his sculpted face.
His nose betrayed him. “Iphis, poor lad.” My apprentice was the latest to fall to the Gorgon, despite my counsel. Would we solve no more mysteries together? “Curious unto death, didn’t I say? Persephone, Orpheus, Icarus, now you: why do warnings always fall on deaf ears?” I sighed. “Not that I listen myself. Perhaps defiance makes us mortal.”
I heard scrapes of iron on stone behind me.
She was coming.
I closed my eyes.
“Drink with me, old drunk.” The stench of her breath carried her words, her voice as harsh as surf against coral. But even the stink could not mask the scent of wine on the wind, close enough to tempt me. “You demanded one last bacchanalia, did you not? Open your eyes. I pose you no threat.”
The temptation to look was great, but I resisted that urge better than my thirst. “As harmless as a nest of vipers, by the sound of it.” I licked my dry lips, and pretended to tousle Iphis’ hair. “No mortal’s hands chiseled these coils. I know what you are, Gorgon. Your puppet king Nearchus may claim a genius for carving life from stone, but we all know he has no talent save games of the groin. I’ll not be as easy a prey as the boy.”
She laughed. “Zeno, the fabled myth-slayer, admits he believes in monsters? I thought they called you that for unmasking those who disguised their mortal crimes with myth.”
“Logic easily catches those frauds, who trip on their own contradictions. But do the secret scrolls of Daedalus not teach, When you have discounted all paradoxes, whatever remains, even the magical, must be the truth?” I leaned forward and whispered. “I accept, as you do, that our world is touched by the gods. I’ve seen strange things in my sixty-odd years. Secrets I might tempt you with, mundane and mystical.”
“You would buy your life with tales? The nearness of death must dull your mind, philosopher. Better to sell your fellow conspirators to us for freedom.”
“Freedom?” I snorted. “I have it still. Should I choose to run, not even one as swift as you can catch a tortoise like me.”
“One of your paradoxes?”
I nodded. “When the chase begins, you must first reach where I started, but by the time you reach that place, I will have already moved ahead. When you give chase again, by wing or by foot, I will also have advanced. Thus, you can never catch me.”
A silence. I did not break it: let her hang awhile on the contradictions, while I pondered her weaknesses. Words and wit were the only weapons left to me. If I was to defeat her, I must know her mind, her heart.
“Your paradoxes bore me,” she declared. “Young Iphis here amused me more. We spoke of your exploits, and how you forbade him to look. I lied well for him, and in the end he sealed his own doom. But why have you come? Old bones make poor stone.”
“To end this taking of our children, Gorgon. Choose the old instead. We know better diversions.”
“You are not half as old as I.”
“Ah, but twice wiser.” I bared my toothy smile. “Wise enough to know you cannot win our obedience with these games.”
She hissed. “These tributes are not for sport, but lessons of power. To appease your foes, you must charm them. Yet threaten their young, and you will rule them. Minos tutored me well.”
“Minos was a tyrant, and you wear his crown askew. There is no palace for you in Elea, no Labyrinth. From the likes of Nearchus, you wish to craft a Minos? Better to trap a goat in a cave and call it a Minotaur! What is Nearchus without his false charms and cruel pleasures? An idiot with fools for friends.”
“He is a son to me,” she hissed, “and the mask I wear in this play of society.” I felt a sharpness beneath my chin: her claw, primed to pierce my skin. “Minos taught me the uses of my curse. Favors from mercy. Executions for conquest. Shape civilization for centuries to come.”
I tapped my chest. “Conquer this man first, and I may believe you. But be warned: I’ve loved and been loved, often and with much wine. You may crush this husk, but never my spirit.” I pushed my chin down, letting her claw draw blood.
“If you wish death, Zeno, simply open your eyes.”
“Oh, you’d be a vision, Gorgon, but my task is not yet done. Let us drink and bargain for the fate of this city.”
“What have you to offer? You’ve nothing but the rags you wear.”
“True. So I’ll play the Sphinx of Elea and barter with wisdom, riddle, and paradox.” A trickle of blood ran down my neck. “What of reprieve from your curse? What’s that worth to you?”
She did not remove the talon. “Now you pretend to be a god.”
“Even I am not so vain, unlike some sisters I can name. Stheno. Euryale. Which are you?”
She remained silent.
I pressed my advantage. “I’ve discovered a truly remarkable solution to your curse. Alas, the margin of my life is too close to speak it in full. But since you are impatient for my demise, let us end this, with my paradox frozen with my final breath.”
It was a bluff and a greater gamble — I could only guess that she desired reprieve — but I opened my eyes at last.
What I saw did not kill me. She concealed her face with a player’s mask, crafted in the traditional guise of Medusa. One of her hands remained at my throat, while the other held the mask to cup her face. The bronze gorgoneion did little to hide her serpentine locks or her golden wings, but I smirked at the irony: the Gorgon donned her sister’s face to hide her own. There ought to be a myth in that.
But her eyes, her beguiling eyes! “I always wondered if it was the face or the gaze that petrifies, and now I know. However Athena cursed you, she left you the eyes of a virgin.”
She looked away and let her claw fall from my chin. I wondered if her scales could blush? “It seems your execution has been stayed,” she breathed. “For now.”
I dismissed her with a wave, and searched the shadows for the promised wine. “Your curse intrigues me. Why should Medusa be blessed with mortality, while her sisters suffer immortally? Seems to me, Athena meted out the worse of fates upon two innocents, guilty only by shared blood. A strange act for the goddess of wisdom.”
“Is that your paradox? I expected more cunning from you. Stheno and I served Athena faithfully. We did not boast of our beauty. We did not fornicate with Poseidon in her sacred temple. Yet we are to suffer eternally for our sister’s transgressions?” Her vipers writhed and snapped at the air. “Spare me this conundrum. I’ve lived centuries of it.”
I spied the bowl, balanced on the back of a statue on all fours. I laughed, and edged towards it. “Your affliction’s merely a riddle that amuses me. Shall I solve it for you?”
“I’ve sought an answer for a thousand years, claimed all human and godly sins to see how they fit. The Oracle is silent to my pleas. The likes of Oedipus and Daedalus could not unriddle Athena in all her wisdom. Think you might fare better, mortal?”
“Make it worth my while.” I watched her eyes, knowing they would betray her true thoughts.
“I can spare you the torments of the underworld,” she offered, her scaly hand outstretched. “You can watch lives ebb and flow. Your wisdom will multiply with the centuries.”
I rolled my eyes. “What good is wisdom without my eloquence? Without the praise of pupils? Rather I die with eyes sewn shut, than suffer the silencing of my tongue.”
The Gorgon smoothed back her writhing hair. “Name your price.”
“Earn my answer with an oath, Euryale. Swear by the gods to end this tyranny and restore democracy to Elea.”
She hesitated. I took advantage of her indecision to sidle within reach of the bowl.
At last, she acquiesced. “Should you rid me of my curse, I will relinquish my hold over this colony. This I swear by Poseidon, by Hera, by Hades.”
A strange impulse overtook me, and I pushed her even further. “Swear it by Athena,” I demanded.
Her mask-hand quivered. “You doubt the gods I’ve called to witness?”
“I only ask for the one oath you dare not break.” I ran the tip of my tongue over my lips. I could almost taste the wine now.
I reached for the bowl, but I was caught unprepared when she seized me by my neck and hoisted me bodily into the air. The bowl fell and wine stained my legs. She held me high and tightened her grip. I struggled and starved for breath, but she did not relent. She had the strength to behead me if she chose.
“Never,” she said. “Name another price.”
I had no choice but to comply. “Very well.”
She tossed me to the ground, leaving me to catch my breath and think.
Next time, I should ask for the wine first. I was tempted to demand just the wine for payment, but my meditations on death had given me a different idea. “Give me but two coins, one to pay the ferryman.”
“And what would you do with the other?”
I smirked through the pain. “Careful, Gorgon. I might demand another obol for that answer, and you would ask what I would do with that. But two I’ll take, though I need only one. Think of it as Zeno’s last paradox.”
Euryale granted me a day’s grace. Exhausted, I slept, hoping that the muse of detection would again visit me.
Athens invaded my dream. I found myself before the statues of the Tyrannicides, where Pericles waited. When I accompanied Parmenides there a lifetime ago, I never expected to stay in that magnificent city as long as I did. Elea was my home and I pledged my love to her, but Athens would always be my coy mistress. There, I taught my philosophy to those that would meet my price. For some, like young Socrates, I waived the fee. The true reward was the meeting of minds, and the insights they dared to voice.
Pericles was one such pupil. When I first made his acquaintance, he was already well-loved, and rightfully so. Dignified, sincere, pure: those were words that fit him still. When he spoke, thunder and lightning rumbled forth and the winds stilled to hear him. Best of all, he was quick to grasp the convolutions of my logic. We solved many a mystery together, and barely escaped not a few catastrophes with our lives.
“Master Zeno, your teachings have delighted and challenged me, and I owe you my gratitude. In appreciation, I’d like to show you a godly paradox.”
How we arrived in his secret garden, I could not say, save that we emerged among the cypresses into a twilight paradise in the secret heart of Athens. There were fields of narcissi and mint, groves of linden and laurel, and statues of men and women that feigned breath.
Age can wreak havoc on memory, but slowly I remembered those statues, and our adventures to acquire them. I walked up to the nearest and scrutinized it: an old man with astonishment chiseled into his face. “Truly life-like,” I praised. “If I ask him his name, you’d almost expect him to answer.”
“Because he once was alive,” Pericles reminded me. “Though one hopes Battus has learned to hold his tongue. He had promised never to reveal that Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle, but he broke his word. For that, Hermes petrified him.”
I glanced around, and caught flutters of motion among the shadows. Birds? “Your Garden of Metamorphoses. I had almost forgotten.”
“Many things here were once men and women, metamorphosed by the gods. Almond, mint, myrrh; spider, partridge, ant. We acquired some of these trophies together, you and I. Blame my obsession on Aspasia; she has an infectious passion for living myths.” He grinned, and so did I. All Attica knew how bewitched he was by his Miletian mistress. He brought me to a woman of black stone, alone among the hyacinths. I remembered her: Aglaurus. Her stance told her story: you shall not pass whilst I breathe. “I consider these statues are my proudest finds. They give shape and substance to our past,” said Pericles. “Each is unique, like Aglaurus. Few mortals are as foolish as she, to stand in the way of a god’s love. To think: a thousand years ago, she lived, breathed, challenged a god. Will we be myths as well, ten centuries hence? How many ways will our descendants reinvent us?”
“Seems to me, what survives longest are our worst sins and outlandish deaths,” I answered, thinking of my impending doom.
Pericles laughed. “Then let the world remember my love of a courtesan and my pride in Athens, for they will be the death of me.” Alas, I feared that he would also be remembered for the size of his head, but even I could not tell him that.
“So alive, yet as frozen as the dead: doomed to live out a single moment forever. Paradox.” My instinct told me that Pericles dangled the solution to my present dilemma before me, and I needed only to recognize it for what it was.
“There remains the best of contradictions, friend.” He led me to a granite hound giving chase to a sandstone fox. I had not seen these before. The hound was crouched to pounce, his eyes fixed on the fox before him, his foaming saliva petrified at the corners of his maw. In contrast, the vixen was grace caught in stone: in a half-twist, she was poised to double-back and leap over her hunter, thus eluding him. So intense was that scene that I fell to all fours to examine the players; still I could not tell which fate the vixen would find if time breathed again. Escape, or death in those jaws?
“When the Thebans angered Dionysus, the god set a vixen to steal the city’s newborn,” said Pericles. “The Cadmean Fox was gifted with the power to outrun all hounds, and could not be caught. To appease the creature’s wrath, each month the Thebans exposed a child. The tributes continued until Amphitryon came to rid them of their curse. The hero borrowed the Cretan Dog, blessed by Artemis with the power to catch any animal it chased.”
The paradox was clear: Amphitryon had set the inescapable hound on the uncatchable fox. “A dilemma worthy of the gods.”
“Precisely. Zeus looked down and saw the impending clash of divine powers. As the king of gods, it was left to him to arbitrate the dispute between Artemis and Dionysus. Should Dionysus’s vixen be caught? Or should she evade Artemis’ dog? Vain were these gods, and neither would yield to the other. To resolve the dilemma, Zeus granted victory to neither. Instead, he petrified both beasts.”
“An ingenious solution,” I acknowledged. “Two stones can neither chase nor flee; ergo, no paradox. A greater curse to balance two contradictory blessings.” There might be a way to use this against Euryale. “I owe you, Pericles. Elea owes you.”
He shook his head. “Free them, Zeno.”
He and the garden faded away, and I knew it was time to wake.
I came to in a pool of my own blood and vomit. My throat burned inside and out, but I did not mind: it was morning, and I still lived.
Perhaps there was still time enough to sharpen my logic and behead the Gorgon.
She called for me once more.
A fresh bowl of wine awaited me atop the crouched statue. It burned my throat as I drank, but I savored every drop.
When a masked Euryale emerged from the shadows, I bowed. “No nightmares, I trust?”
“There are worse things that come in sleep. They call themselves heroes. Look upon Perseus, who slew a stranger in her sleep and fled unseen, who left her sisters a headless corpse. Then decide if he is hero or beast. Think yourself a hero, Zeno?”
“Me? Heroes know their way around a blade, not I. All I share with them is a fatal flaw.” I held out my empty bowl to her. “I am weak before the daimon of the grape. Fill my cup and I will prove it.”
She pushed the bowl aside. “There are limits to my patience. Tell me how to remove my curse.”
So I told her my dream.
“What’s to be learned from this?” she asked.
I led her through my logic. “If two blessings are broken by a curse, then two curses may be cured by a blessing. You’ve been cursed by Athena to turn to stone all who gaze upon your face. But suppose a man who is already petrified catches sight of your face. What would happen?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. He is already stone.”
I shook my head. “By the power of Athena’s curse, he must turn to stone. But how can that curse take effect when the man is already stone? A contradiction!”
“There’s a flaw in your reasoning,” she argued. “A stone man cannot see.”
“Accept this conceit, if you will: a man who is petrified still looks, listens, loves, despairs. It is no punishment to turn someone to stone, if he cannot suffer thereafter! For something to change substance, it cannot remain the same as it was before. Correct?”
“That much I’ll grant you.”
“Then, find a man who is already stone and let him gaze upon you.”
“What would that achieve? I can stand unmasked before these statues and nothing would change.”
“No, not victims also under Athena’s power!” She doubted as much as my worst students. “The will and whims of a goddess obey her own logic. Didn’t you suspect as much, being able to bear the sight of your sisters? You must find a victim of a different god. Stand before his stony gaze, and force the curses of the two gods to come into conflict. When paradox threatens, Zeus must intervene.”
“You intend to trap me, myth-slayer,” she concluded. Was that fear in her eyes? “I will likely suffer the fate of the hound and fox.”
“No. To turn you to stone would slight Athena’s power. Zeus will not side with one god against another, but will instead show that his power is supreme. Should Zeus side against Athena, letting her curse fail because another god’s curse preceded hers? No. Your curse is ancient and powerful, and Athena too proud. She will deem her punishment to be the stronger curse, and all things that see your face must perish in stone.
“Or should Zeus side with Athena? He would insult the other god if he negates that god’s curse, just so you can petrify him with Athena’s.
“Thus, Zeus will do neither, but show his own power to be greater. Let us be bold and predict his act. So long as the stone man gazes upon you, both your curses must be balanced with the gift of abatement. You will be beautiful again.” I let the words sink in. “You vowed to free Elea if I could assuage your pain. Put truth or lie to my words. Seek out such a man, then test my hypothesis. Decide what you truly desire, Euryale. This hideous power, or a second chance at life?”
She fell deeper into thought. I took my time to lick the bowl.
“There are those who say you confound even the gods, Zeno, and I’m beginning to believe them,” she said finally. “But even if I believe you — where might I find such a man? Athens? In this Garden of Metamorphoses? Her city is forbidden to me.”
“Forbidden, or shunned out of fear? What worse can Athena do? She has already denied you all things human. She leaves you the knowledge of love, but not the means to lust.” I cupped my groin with the empty bowl.
“What worse? I do not care to find out!” she blurted. “Believe me, it would be delicious irony if I could wreak my vengeance on Athena with her own curse. Let this mask fall away and walk plain in her streets, not caring who I turn to stone. But she would invent a harsher punishment to fit my crime.”
“Only if you are caught,” I whispered. “And what if you are? You’ve been trapped by the same curse for a thousand years. Shouldn’t any change — for better or worse — be more bearable than eternal monotony?”
She shook her head. “Better the doom I know than one to come. Besides, Athens is under siege.”
“The mighty Euryale, afraid of a mortal war? Best you crawl back into your cave with your sister.”
“I will not live in exile again.”
“Then what choice do you have? Fight your fear of Athena. It is your only hope.”
“No. You want me to rush blindly into Athens. There must be some statues Pericles hasn’t claimed, myths he did not know.” She fanned her wings. “Where else can I find them?”
“I do not remember,” I admitted.
“Think harder.” She walked over to the statue of Iphis, and took its hand in hers. “Iphis’ tongue cannot speak his next question, so I will ask it for him.” She lowered her voice in a mockery of the boy’s. “‘Master Zeno, now that I am stone, do I feel pain?'” She snapped off one of Iphis’ fingers with ease.
“Stop,” I pleaded.
“Is that your answer?” she asked. She flicked the finger seaward. I watched it vanish into darkness. “Does he feel the pain of sundering? Does he sense his finger even as it sinks into the sea? Will his eyes weep true tears?” With a swat, she toppled Iphis.
I lunged forward, trying to catch him, but my efforts were in vain. He shattered against the ground, and small flying shards of him cut into my flesh. Iphis’ limbs laid in pieces around his broken torso, his severed head coming to rest at my feet. I stooped and cradled his marble head in my arms. “Forgive me,” I whispered.
“What now of his curse, Zeno? Does broken stone still see and hear? Even a severed head keeps its curse. Perseus proved it so, using my sister’s head to slay his foes.” She leaned forward and hissed. “Now you can play Perseus.”
“I cannot help you,” I said. “I do not remember!”
“Try.” She walked over to another statue, a young woman with her mouth open in surprise. A chain of fresh daisies ringed her neck. “Did you know Orthia? For the past hundred days, her sister and mother would come at the height of midday and replace the wreath with new flowers. They hold each other’s hands, and pray to the gods for her safe return. This statue is their one last, fragile memory.” She placed her hand on the statue’s shoulder. “Will they find only broken marble tomorrow?”
“You’ve made your point. Spare her. Remember how you were once like us: hurt by words, harmed by deeds. Do not indulge in the pain of others.”
“I have never forgotten.”
Orthia’s statue shattered, as did my heart.
I shielded Iphis’ eyes.
Euryale bent down to pluck the necklace of flowers, but it fell apart as she pulled it from the rubble. “Pity.” She scattered the petals in her hand over Orthia’s remains. “Perhaps I will take her sister to replace her.”
I could not let her continue this senseless destruction. “Stop. You win. Let me think.”
I mulled the problem over.
Play Perseus, she said. Very well. I had been fighting myth with myth, and so I should again.
“Go to Crete,” I grumbled. “Seek out the ruins of the Labyrinth.”
“The gods gave Perseus gifts to slay your sister Medusa: an adamantine sickle, a mirrored shield, winged sandals and a cap of invisibility. It is the last you need, the Helm of Hades, to enter Athens unseen. Minos is now a judge of the underworld, and it stands to reason that he may grant that boon. Stand in the maze he built to avenge his son, and demand your right to vengeance. There, he cannot refuse your call for justice.”
She nodded, grasping this idea quicker, seeing there might be hope for her yet.
“Should you send me on a fool’s odyssey, Zeno, they will tell legends of your suffering at my hands for a thousand years.” The coldness in her voice alone could have frozen me for a tenth of that.
I stared into her eyes and spat on her mask. “I stand by my words. Keep your oath as well.”
She did not wipe away my spittle. Instead, she reached into the folds of her dress and tossed two coins at my feet. “For the boy and his love.” Euryale turned and strode into the shadows.
I gritted my teeth, bent over and snatched up the two obols. Now, only time and luck would prove me worthy of the name myth-slayer.
Euryale had taken the bait.
Ten days, and she had yet to return. Did I expect her to? No … not unless I had overestimated her obsession.
In her absence, she left Nearchus to play tyrant. The city called Nearchus basiliskos, the Little King, more for his diminutive stature than his ambitions. Still, he was handsome and glib, and that charisma had fooled the masses of Elea. However, without the Gorgon’s guile to guide him, perhaps my brethren would awaken from complacency and pursue open rebellion.
My cell held nothing besides a bed of straw and cold tiles beneath, and though I was allowed visitors, I refused to see anyone: no one else would be implicated as my accomplice. But Euryale let me keep Iphis’ head. Her error, my fortune. Tired of lecturing my own shadow, I was glad for the lad’s company. “I fear this is our last mystery, boy,” I told him.
I waited and plotted the ruin of Nearchus. Logic dictated that he would come, to pry answers from me however he could. When Nearchus did show his face, it was as I suspected: out of fear for his life.
“Someone tried to kill me last night.” He stood to one side of my cell door, his guards but a nod away. He braced his back against the wall, tossing a dagger from hand to hand. His unfocused eyes told the tale: he had not slept well for days. “Telos, they said, another of your students. Alas, my guards slew him before he could join you. I should just execute them all.”
Shrill-voiced Telos? I did not think he had it in him. I seethed deep inside at the lad’s death. But for show, I laughed. “How many have heard my lessons, do you think? You enthrall the people with your demagoguery and your supposed power over stone. For that, they overlook your extravagances, but none will abide public slaughter.”
“You’re wrong. I’ll bring greatness to Elea,” he boasted.
“By selling the town to the likes of pirates? You misunderstand greatness.”
“We need them, Zeno. The Liparese fleets will make us a power to be reckoned with, and we’ve the mainland port they desire. Your ideals and philosophies won’t feed the people and protect them from invaders. I offer them security and legacy. They respect and fear my power.”
“Your power? Or do you mean Euryale’s?” I lifted my head skyward and shouted in mockery. “Hear him, gods! The Little King claims Euryale’s curse as his own! At least pretend to be virtuous, basiliskos. Continue it long enough and you will have the desire and practice needed to do good. It worked for Pericles. Why not for a buffoon like you?”
Nearchus sneered and jabbed the point of his blade into the stone wall. “Enough stalling. I should just kill you for sending her on a quest to gods-know-where.”
“But you won’t. She will slay me herself … if she returns.”
“Won’t I?” He pointed the dagger at me. “An oath-breaker deserves to die. You promised me your accomplices if I gave you to her. Do you now forswear?”
A dilemma. It was against all I believed in to inform against my own, but I did make that promise: names in exchange for my audience with Euryale. Oath-breaker or traitor? Both were bitter epithets, but there was little choice: I must choose one.
I sighed. “What’s said must be done. Agenor. Lycurgus. Halimede.”
The fluster on Nearchus’ face amused me. “But they are my most trusted allies!”
“You confuse flattery with loyalty. Who are a tyrant’s friends, but foes close enough to slip a blade between his ribs?” I mimed the thrust of a hidden knife. “Yet by the same logic, they too can be easily slain. Question is, whose hand is quicker?”
Nearchus rewarded me by ordering Tragocrates to lash me thrice every dusk: one blow for each named name. I endured them as well as I could, but it was guilt that flayed my heart day and night.
He returned in three days’ time, bearing a pitcher of Elea’s finest. “The Liparese arrive tomorrow, and thanks to you, there will be no conspirators to stop us.”
He fell to one knee and poured me a draught of wine. I took the cup and greedily drained it. Bitter, but I did not care: it had been too long since my last.
“It was easier to believe Agenor and Lycurgus of plotting against me. But Halimede? It pained me to even think it, but I had to test the truth of your accusations,” he explained as he refilled the cup.
I emptied the second cup as swift as the first. “How?”
“I invited all of them over for a symposium, and loosened their tongues with wine. I asked simple questions, more to hear the words they did not say. Every gesture, every silence — all pointed to their venomous intent. How could I have been so blinded by those sycophants?”
“The best lies are the ones we tell ourselves,” I lectured.
“There was only one course of action, naturally.” He smiled and stared into my eyes. “I poisoned them.”
I coughed. For the first time in my life, I lost my taste for wine.
“The nightmares had come for months,” he said. “Dreams of assassins in every shadow. But last night, I slept peacefully, and mourned only for Halimede.” He sighed as he filled my cup to the brim again. “It does not matter. We learn to make newer, stronger allies. Drink! To your treachery!”
My stomach burned. Was it poison or imagination? How quickly would I die? “Is that why you allied yourself with Euryale?” I asked. “For her strength?”
“An alliance implies choice,” Nearchus answered. “There are no choices in family, hatred or love.”
“You hate her,” I accused. “It must be a hollow life, when others force decisions upon you.”
“No. I thank her for rescuing me from exposure on the Spartan slopes. It is you I despise, old man. You gave her hope, lured her from our destiny. She will thank me for your death.”
Was I to die, not knowing if Elea will be free?
No. So long as I could still speak, I would fight Nearchus.
“And so it ends.” I sagged down to the cot, and fished the two obols from Iphis’ mouth on the sly. With one gulp, I finished the wine and turned the cup upside down, to show it empty. “Come. Fill my cup one last time and I will show you freedom.”
He leaned forward to pour me another draught. From this angle, his nose presented an all-too-inviting target.
He wanted to be like Euryale. I was all too happy to oblige.
I lunged at his face and he fell backward in surprise. I wasted no time to tear with my teeth, and what was left of the wine spilled and stained us.
His guards pulled me off Nearchus and pinned me down, but they were too late. By the horror on their faces, I made two final deductions: first, I had given Euryale a true son in ugliness; second, the basiliskos would see me dead before morning.
Death was a welcome release from torture.
Unlike the other shades, I did not hasten to cross the Styx. Instead, I wandered its shores, seeking Euryale. I did not know her face, but it mattered not: I had an eternity.
At last I found her, crying for Minos among the plague-dead. Her serpents were gone, her wings shorn, but nevertheless, it was Euryale.
I forced my way into the mob. When I reached her, I brushed her hair aside.
Ghastly beautiful, she was. I could not help but caress her cheek. “Like I said. Virgin eyes.”
“Myth-slayer.” She eased my hand away. “You knew what would happen, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “It was only logical. But how exactly did the paradox resolve?”
“The helm, the garden, the statues: you did not lie. I unearthed the skull of the Minotaur deep in the Labyrinth, and I called on Minos with blood and bone. He heard my cry for justice, and bestowed Hades’ helm upon me.
“And so I walked unseen within Athens’ city walls. I shadowed Pericles to the Garden, crossed its threshold at the kiss of dawn. There, I found two statues that stood together, man and woman, locked in breath and gaze. I stole him from her, and fled the city.
“When I could resist no longer, I set him down on a beach, stepped before him, and removed the Helm that hid me. And as you said, when we stood face to face our curses died: my horrid hide boiled away, and my wings fell as petals of gold; his stone became flesh again. We laughed, and he reached out and touched my face! A glorious moment.” She shook her head. “But without the curses protecting us, we soon withered … .”
“And died.” I nodded. “But I gave you only what you asked. You wanted freedom from your curse? Death has given you release. You seek justice concerning the sin Athena condemned you for? In the court of the dead, you will hear it.” I gestured towards Charon’s skiff upstream, waiting to ferry souls across to the Plain of Judgment.
She reached for my hand, but hesitated. “I cannot pay the price of passage.”
I grinned, and spat two obols into my hand.
Her eyes widened. “The coins I gave you?”
I kissed one and flipped it into her hands. “As I said … I need only one.”
Tony Pi is a Canadian linguist living in Toronto. His work has previously appeared in On Spec, Shred of Evidence, Aoife’s Kiss and Flash Me Magazine.
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