I suppose the last thing to discuss is the literary material that inspired Hespera. I took ancient literature my freshman year of high school and fell in love with it. Because Hespera takes place in a pseudo-Greek/Roman environment, I wanted to capture the culture and themes of ancient Greek literature as closely as I could. The first example that springs to mind is, in the style of Greek epics, my use of 'books' instead of chapters. I also employed the chorus of elders so often seen in Greek literature-- in this case, Prisca, who helpfully chimes in on details both Hespera and the audience might not know. Not only did my intense love of Greek drama help flesh out the character of Hesiod, but Hespera's character was inspired by the heroine of Sophocles' play, Antigone.
This also led to some unexpected bloopers. In book (chapter) seven, Hespera describes the real-life playwright Euripides as 'charming'. I actually meant to reference the comic playwright Aristophanes. Euripides' plays, although I enjoy them, can best be described as psychological thrillers. I can't see anyone describing them as 'charming'.
And so to the ending. I hope you enjoy reading Hespera as much as I adored writing it!
Hespera, Book Four
The Second Remembrance:
Hespera remembered the day they gave her to the dragon. The day Charis had betrayed her.
She’d known the game was up as soon as she’d carried in the wine for Themistocles and seen her father and Charis there. She could’ve run. She might’ve made it as far as the door. She did not bother to try.
“My lord,” she murmured, curtsying. She set the amphora on the table and busied herself with the cups of water. The surface shimmered beneath her trembling hands.
“Put those down, Kallisto,” Themistocles said.
Because fear made her foolish, Hespera chose to interpret that as a dismissal and tried to leave. His hand, calloused and warm, stopped her, and she cringed away from it.
Charis didn’t raise her eyes, deeper than Themistocles’s sapphires, from her glass of wine, clouded and dispersed by water. Hespera watched her evenly while Themistocles explained. A few gladiators had been saying strange things, how she and Melanthius had a claim to the Paramon throne. Of course, he utterly discounted this statement, but a few unbearably simple gladiators believed, and something had to be done. Some of those gladiators had run away; something must--
“Of course something must be done,” Hespera agreed. And she launched herself across the table at Charis.
It was hardly a fight. Charis was a slender, small Soloni girl. Hespera was the daughter of a country shredded by war for hundreds of years. Melanthius grabbed his daughter and hauled her back, ignoring her kicking and raking of nails. Themistocles helped Charis, head lolling and eyes unfocused, back into her chair.
“Please,” Melanthius said ineffectually, over Hespera’s shrieks, “she’s fevered, she doesn’t understand what she’s saying—“
“The harpy!” Hespera screamed. “Conniving witch! We trusted you—you’re my sister—and you… you….”
She stopped struggling and sagged against her father’s arms. Tears broke free from her eyes, and she leaned against his shoulder and sobbed while Themistocles explained the delicate detail of the dragon.
The hallway was as still and quiet as the last time Hespera had visited it. Something about its silence forbade speed: she moved noiselessly.
She stopped in the doorway. The air coming from the small room felt warm, overheated, touched with the faint smell of sickness. Slowly, she stepped in.
The bed was empty.
Hespera blinked, letting tears wash down her cheekbones. She allowed herself a moment of grief. Then two. Three long breaths. Then she had to forget Charis and turn, because voices sounded in the hallway.
“… foolish, love. The physician told you not to move.”
A soft breath, like someone would’ve spoken if they could.
“Why did you go there, anyway? You know they’re dangerous. You know that… better than most.”
Charis laughed. The sound was muffled, the chimes tarnished, but it was unmistakable.
Hespera turned around and almost collided with Themistocles, his arms filled with the fragile bones of her sister.
“What? Kallisto?” he asked. He did not, like Hespera half-expected, drop Charis and lunge after her. Instead, he moved to the bed and lowered Charis onto it with a gentleness she hadn’t expected. The sheet was trapped beneath her body; Hespera helped him smooth it out to place Charis beneath.
She looked like skin and bones, a thin veneer of lead-bleached skin all that held her soul within her body. When Hespera smoothed her hair, fair tufts fell out beneath her fingers. Her proximity to death sapped all the beauty from Charis’s features. Silently, Hespera draped her chlamus across the looking glass so that Charis needn’t see.
“Hespera,” Charis said, then her voice caught, like she would cough if she had the strength. She took a shuddering, rattling breath, and her soft lids hid her irises from all sight. “I did it, Hespera. I changed the past after all.” Her eyes drifted away. “Themistocles…”
She didn’t move.
“Get a physician!” Themistocles said, his voice rising with panic. He grabbed Charis’s hand, shaking it so the feathery bones creaked. His wild gaze traveled to Hespera. “Do something!”
Hespera was staring at the cold, bleached face.
“You should’ve married her,” she said. “She wanted you to marry her. And you shouldn’t have made her afraid.”
It’s strange, she thought. For so long I thought Themistocles was the root of all evil. But he’s just a man. Only one man.
The phrase echoed through her mind. Only one man… only one man… Leonatus was only one man, but his writing—his legacy—had destroyed a nation and its people. And for what? It hadn’t brought Solon peace. Just as it hadn’t helped Leonatus.
She suddenly wished he were here. She thought she’d like to apologize to him and accept his in return.
Then her thoughts spiraled out and away, like water down a river, and Themistocles grabbed her by the forearm, jerking her to her feet. She went along placidly. He spared one last, uncertain glance for Charis before towing Hespera down the hallways of his manor. She didn’t protest. She didn’t even think until they stopped for a moment. Her sluggish brain tried to process that Themistocles was doing something with the keys at his belt. Then iron creaked against iron, and he gave her a hard shove from behind. She stumbled forward, crashing to her knees on… straw. Old, stained straw that hadn’t been changed in months. Her gaze rose to the iron columns that ran, tightly spaced, to the ceiling, caging her in.
I’m in Themistocles’s cells, she thought, almost laughing with relief. Then she turned around, and her eyes met a small mountain of gleaming, breathing gold.
She realized where she was. And she knew that she would die.
There were many ways to find Hespera, but they all took too long. So Leonatus chose a quicker route: he went to the nearest gladiator and said, “I’m the prince of Solon.”
Not comfortable. But effective.
When he regained the ability to focus his eyes, he saw a familiar face swim above him: sharp jaw, hazel eyes, amber hair. He’d been a fool not to realize the resemblance earlier, but it was only one of many recent circumstances that had made him feel foolish.
“Prince,” Melanthius, king of Paramos, said. “You should not have come.”
“Yes, whatever—where is Hespera?”
The already deep lines in his craggy face furrowed. “Hespera?” he said suspiciously.
“Your daughter!” Leonatus shouted. “Is she safe? Where is she?”
He thought the gladiator might strike him. But Melanthius blinked like he restrained tears, and the blood drained from Leonatus’s face.
“My daughter is dead,” Melanthius said bitterly. “Your friend Themistocles saw to that.”
The world shifted. It seemed as though Melanthius loomed suddenly above him, but Leonatus realized numbly that his knees had failed.
“When?” he whispered, tears spilling down his cheeks.
“Weeks ago,” Melanthius said. “He fed her to a drag—“
Every gladiator in the circle gripped their spears more tightly when Leonatus laughed.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped when they levelled those spears at him, but he was too deliriously happy to care. “But your news is ancient.”
A gladiator drew back his spear, but Melanthius motioned him to stillness.
“My daughter is alive?” he said tremblingly.
Leonatus turned his gaze to the manor. “For now,” he said. “But I’m afraid I know where she is.”
“Where is she?”
“The same place Themistocles sends all of his slaves,” Leonatus said. “Into the lion’s den.”
Hespera sat absolutely still, pressed up against the cold iron bars. The lion lay on its side across the cage, its side heavy with sleeping breaths, a mass of rough gold, richer and more beautiful than silk. She would’ve been sick if it wouldn’t have woken him.
She flinched at a distant sound further up the tunnel that led to the surface. And her eyes widened when Leonatus stumbled down the hallway.
“What—“ His eyes widened.
Desperately, she motioned for silence. He obeyed, but she could see thoughts racing behind his dark eyes. He stumbled forward a step when Melanthius ran into him, almost knocking him against the cage.
“Where’s the key?” Leonatus said, so softly he barely breathed the words.
She shrugged unhappily and whispered, “I don’t know. Themistocles took it with him.”
Melanthius disappeared again into the tunnel. Hespera sat, terrified, her heart thundering against her breastbone. Leonatus held her hands hard enough for the bones to creak.
There was a scuffle of noise, and Hespera froze. Melanthius returned shortly. His eyes glinted in the candlelight.
“It wasn’t there,” he said simply. It took him a moment to continue. “He was coming back when I found him. Wherever he went, he threw away the key. I can’t find it.”
Frantically, Hespera looked around the bare workroom. Her heartbeat raced and thundered until, at last, it beat itself to near stillness, and she sat back down. Melanthius turned away. He looked as though he might speak, then, with a faint wave that might’ve been a farewell, he retreated back up the tunnel.
“This is not,” Hespera said, “at all how I pictured dying.”
Leonatus smiled at her. Tears filled his eyes, but he did not let them fall.
“I’m sure not,” he said. “With you, it should’ve been a victorious battle, going down in a blaze of glory. You would, of course, be quite elderly. Your great-grandchildren would’ve tried to persuade you to retire, but you’d have none of that.”
“I would be content simply not dying a slave.”
“Oh, Hespera,” he whispered, smiling painfully. “You were never a slave. I was an absolute fool not to realize you were a princess.”
The lion shuddered, fanning them with sleepy breath. Leonatus and Hespera froze for a perilously long moment before he eased back into sleep.
“Don’t be too impressed,” Hespera said at last, her voice shaking. “There were countless princesses of Paramos; we were a large house. I was hardly the most senior. I’m sure there are slaves out there with far nobler blood than I.” Her voice broke. “And who knows? Maybe the rest of my family’s still alive. They must be. I’m sure they are.” She covered her eyes. “I hope they are.”
“I do, too.” Leonatus sighed. “I should’ve freed you.”
“You practically did,” Hespera said. “A free person—even a slave—never treated me as well as you did. You made me feel human.”
“I should’ve freed you,” Leonatus repeated.
Hespera sighed. “Maybe. And maybe I shouldn’t have hated you when I learned the truth. Maybe I should’ve realized Charis was killing herself. Maybe Themistocles really loved her. I hope he did.” She smiled a glimmering smile. “Who can say?”
She reached out and touched his face. “You can’t dwell on the maybes, Leo, because then they’ll never truly be. You can only remember what is true and right, beyond all doubt.” And because she would die soon, she leaned up and kissed him.
The lion stirred, moving sluggishly. Its paws, which appeared too massive to move, scraped across the floor.
“There is one thing I know beyond all else on earth to be true,” Hespera said. She was crying but smiling, too. She had never realized how painful and beautiful that combination could be. “I am not a slave.”
She hid her head against his shoulder, and he rested his temple on her head. They waited there for a long moment.
Then… another. And another. A full minute. Breath sliding into breath as the moon floated across the window.
At last she dared raise her eyes to Leonatus, who looked equally astonished. Without speaking, Hespera worked her way free from his arms and stood to face the lion.
It was dead. Not even her shaking vision could disguise that.
“By all the gods…” she whispered. Tears pricked her eyes, but she didn’t know why. Casting another bewildered glance at Leonatus, she edged her way past the massive, molten gold body, around to the trough that held the lion’s food, bare now except for thin, scrawny chunks of meat.
Her fingers shook as she pushed the topmost layer aside. Moonlight glowed off the small, shining pieces of lead, embedded in the meat.
They stared at it in astonishment. Then, lost, Hespera trailed back to the bars to sit again with Leonatus. Moonlight bled into the room.
There are times, Leonatus reflected, when the gods send you gifts beyond your imagination, and it is best not to question them. Above his head, the Soloni Empire was falling, but maybe that was a gift, too, a gift to the world. He could not bring himself to care, or even to think. In a moment he would rise, check on Themistocles, and force himself to be glad Melanthius hadn’t killed the man.
But for now, Leonatus sat in silence, holding Hespera, and waited for the gladiators to come.
The Third Remembrance:
It was different pouring wine for friends, watching the rosy liquid rise cloudily through sweet water. Hespera found she much preferred it.
“For you, my father,” she said, handing him the smooth terra cotta vessel. “And for you, my sister.”
“Decent wine,” Charis remarked, swirling it in her glass. She was still translucently pale but otherwise looked better than she had in months. “I knew I was glad you’re a cupbearer.”
They had recalculated numbers, reinforced messages, and reviewed every last detail until they were finally forced to acknowledge that the rebellion was out of their hands, and events would take place as the gods chose. So they stole wine from the kitchen and sat beneath the watered orange of the sunset, gazing out at the ruddy light fracturing against the ocean.
“A toast,” Melanthius said, raising his drink. “To Paramos.” Their cups made a hollow ring against each other.
“To slaves,” Charis offered.
“And to freedom once more,” Hespera said firmly. She found she loved the dry, earthy clack of clay on clay.
“Do you think it will work?” Charis asked. She had a bright, cutting voice, but it sounded naked now with anxiety. Melanthius looked as though he might half-agree with the question.
“Of course it will,” Hespera said. Perhaps it will. She swallowed the wine’s dregs as the last flecks of molten gold slipped from a sky as red as blood, and she raised her vessel for one final toast.
“To my family,” she said as the light faded to night. “May we never be parted again.”
It was three days before Leonatus saw the princess of Paramos again.
Much had happened since their night in the lion’s cage. A new empire had risen while another fell. There had been battles, treaties, negotiations, and treachery on a scale the world had never known. Slaves turned on their masters. There had been bloodshed, all in the hope of peace.
Leonatus witnessed very little of it. He retreated to the royal library and buried himself in the ancient texts, savoring their silence and content to fiddle with the scrolls, fussing over the way they were arranged. Perhaps they ought to keep them organized by subject instead of author? So many choices…. He lingered over them because they kept him from having to think.
Hesiod dropped by often with provisions and news. “The capital has fallen,” he’d say, passing over a loaf of bread. “Hespera’s fine.”
Leonatus didn’t much care who conquered whom, as long as someone won soon. He was already tired of this rebellion.
On the third day, Hesiod brought the news for which he’d been waiting: the gladiators had won. Somehow, from the ashes of its former glory, Paramos rose again.
“Your family’s all right,” Hesiod said anxiously. “Although I don’t think they’re very happy. To be expected, I suppose.”
Leonatus grunted and slid a scroll into its niche. He’d decided to organize them by subject so that a scholar might more easily discover new authors, new scrolls.
“Leonatus…” Hesiod hesitated. “Do you need to talk?”
“I’m fine,” Leonatus grumbled, stooping to gather up another scroll. “I’m organizing. I am fine.”
But voices in the library disturbed him, and he stormed out into the serenity of the rose garden where the golden-pink petals tumbled and wafted on faint breezes. The almost formless face of the woman in the fountain no longer seemed so unfamiliar, the blurred lines of her face somehow indicating loss and a terrible, terrible weariness. He thought she understood how he felt.
Footsteps padded behind him, then rested into silence.
“I don’t want to talk, Hesiod,” he said, bowing his head.
“Not even to me?” a woman’s voice asked.
Slowly, not daring to believe, Leonatus turned around to face Hespera’s smile. Like the map, she had changed greatly in three days. Gone was the broken-spirited slave, and in her place was a young woman in a gold-fringed crimson peplos, a cloth diadem set with coral nestled in her long amber hair. There were sharp lines of sadness around her eyes that hadn’t been there a few days before. He barely recognized the look in her eyes, but he knew that smile at once.
“Hesper—your highness,” he said. “What are you—“ He couldn’t ask what she was doing here. It was her library.
Her lips parted. In a moment he would know if they were still Hespera and Leonatus, friends, or a distant princess and her subject. Her next words would change the course of his life.
The gods did not often have mercy. But when they did, it was beautiful.
“Please,” she said, a smile spreading across her face. “Call me Hespera.”
“But I don’t understand,” Leonatus said. “How are you a princess?” They sat opposite each other at the stone table amid the soft roses, planted so very long ago.
The princess of Paramos raised an eyebrow, and Leonatus corrected himself, “I mean, obviously you are a queen among women, and I was an utter fool not to see it before. But how did you manage to enlighten the rest of the world to this fact?”
Hespera felt the fierce, choking bands around her heart loosen as she gripped his hands and told him all of it: from her early days as a minor princess and the fall of Paramos. Then on to serving gladiators, until one in particular wandered back into her life after years of separation. The careful plotting, stolen minutes to meet, a rebellion born in whispers and precious trust.
Then, in a small voice, she told of Charis telling Themistocles of their meetings. Of the dragon that never came, until the story circled around to Leonatus again.
He was quiet when she finished. He held her hand and stared mutely at the statue of the broken woman.
“Does this mean there wasn’t a dragon?” he said finally, and she couldn’t help but laugh.
“There is no dragon. That was the chosen excuse to disguise that I was really a princess and that gladiators might flee from where the gods placed them.”
“A shame,” Leonatus said. “I should’ve liked to see one.” He hesitated. “Because you found Melanthius… is there a chance that your siblings and your mother might still live?”
Her smiling mask fell away, and he caught a glimpse of the terror beneath it.
“It does mean that,” she said. “I—I’m scared, Leonatus. I’m scared that I’ll never find them.”
“From a former royal to a current one, all you have to do is snap your fingers,” Leonatus said, “and, somehow, they’ll be found.” He squeezed her hand. “We’ll look together.”
She smiled at him, then reached up and let the roses’ downy petals, impossibly smooth, trail across her hand.
“I never dreamt when I planted them that they would flourish so,” she said. “It’s miraculous.”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “But bear in mind that even when Paramos was gone, the royal family of Solon sent their children to play here each summer. You may have planted these roses, but I watered them.”
She laughed, then sobered again, the mirth draining from her eyes.
“Hesiod told me you’ve been sulking up here for a few days,” she said hesitantly. “I suppose you’re missing some news, then.”
So she’d talked to Hesiod? Leonatus stifled jealousy and tried to ignore the foreboding in her voice.
“What happened? I suppose Paramos and Solon are in negotiation now, hashing out who’s to live where. How… Hespera?”
Her smile stilled, like the sun going behind a cloud.
“Leonatus,” she said gently. “There is no more Solon.”
She turned her face away to admire the flowers, granting him privacy—a rare gift, from a princess-- but Leonatus took the news stoically.
“I suppose,” he said, his voice barely trembling, “that a certain portion of the Soloni population will become slaves, its royal family included. It does have a certain sense of poetic justice. Hesiod would appreciate it if he weren’t one of my nearer cousins.”
Hespera said nothing. She only watched him with the faintest hint of a nervous smile.
“Hespera,” he said. “There will be slaves?”
“The argument for slavery,” she said, coloring, “is that the gods put us all in our place. Being well-versed on the topic, I find I can no longer believe that. I have gone from a fifth or sixth princess to a slave to the crown princess. Can the gods not make up their minds? Or is it up to me to determine my place?”
“You aren’t going to have slaves,” Leonatus whispered. His eyes sparkled. “Oh, Hespera.”
“It can be done,” she said hastily. “Timaeus has proven that. But—it’s going to be hard, Leonatus. And I don’t think I can do it alone.”
“I suppose you need a librarian?”
“Actually, I had you more in mind as my gardener.” He froze, and she laughed. “Yes, my librarian, nitwit! Do you know how much research we’ll have to do to pull this off?”
His laugh spiraled through the roses to the sky. “Yes. And it will be worth every minute of it! Let’s start straight away!”
“It will be hard,” Hespera warned, struggling not to be amused as she followed him through the roses, into the library. “And it probably won’t work. This time next year we’ll likely both be hanging from the walls of my palace, killed by some idiot like Themistocles.”
“But you’ll do it,” Leonatus said, beaming. “Because you were a slave.”
“No.” Hespera shook her head emphatically. A shadow crossed her face. “Because I will not be the master.”
The new court of Paramos, scarred, hard-eyed gladiators all, waited uneasily outside the royal library, listening to the giggles of the new princess and the deposed prince echo off the marble.
“Let’s see—emancipation, manumission, free, freedom, freemen—where would that be?”
“Under the F’s, you dolt! Unless… you’ve ruined my brilliant system of organization!”
None of them dared to enter, and the poet by the door did not raise his head from his work. His hand scratched glistening letters into parchment, sealing the fleeting words into a story, where they lasted longer than men.